In the opening paragraph of Andrew Oldenquist’s introduction to Readings in Moral Philosophy he tries to explain the book’s focus. Describing moral philosophy, Oldenquist says:
It is distinct from moralizing, for moralizing is neither philosophical, nor is it a study of morality, but rather one way of participating in morality. Anthropologists and sociologists sometimes study morality. The former try to discover what other societies think about moral matters, and the latter investigate the moral beliefs of various groups within our society and perhaps try to discover what makes groups of people believe what they do. The philosophical study of morality is both more general and more critical than this… a great many of the problems that interest the moral philosopher are logical problems… the consistency or inconsistency of various moral opinions and principles; in the ways in which good and bad reasoning enter into moral deliberation… in the meaning of moral statements; and in the extent to which some moral opinions depend on more basic ones… [which] has led moral philosophers to look for ultimate moral principles…. [And] the attempt to justify, or in some way to make reasonable, ultimate moral principles…
All of this is reasonable, but when I read this it seemed to me that there was something missing both in what Oldenquist includes and in what he excludes from his focus. There’s an important bridge between moral theory and moral practice. I’m not sure what you would call it, but I’m sure it merits study.
I think philosophers shy away from thinking about this because they think of it as secondary to ethical theory. Once you’ve figured out the Ultimate Moral Principles and have used these to deduce the proper moral behavior, everything then will fall into place on its own. The difficult part is to do this figuring out and deducing.
I’m not so sure. It seems to me that the problem most people have is not that they’ve gotten lost on the way to determining Ultimate Moral Principles and have chosen the wrong ones (or have been unable to choose), but that in applying whatever makeshift moral principles they’ve adopted, they’re being flummoxed by mental biases, various forms of deliberate deception, and such — all of which they’re helpless against because they have not learned to identify and defend against them.
The philosophy (art? technology?) of ethical development would consist of studying the obstacles to living ethically — independently of the details of the Ultimate Moral Principles the moral philosophers discover. Assuming you have some moral principles (though perhaps rudimentary, naïve, and in need of refinement), how do you avoid the many tricks and traps that lead you to make unethical decisions in spite of these principles?
In the Christian world, there’s no shortage of literature on this theme, though instead of “obstacles to living ethically” it’s “temptations to sin.” Is there a secular equivalent? If so, what’s it called? If not, why not?
It seems like the kind of thing that could (and ought to) be taught in the schools. Most of the controversy that has led to the removal of any useful moral instruction from public schools (that is, instruction that rises above “don’t have sex and don’t do drugs”) comes from worries that the schools will start favoring some varieties of Ultimate Moral Principles over others. But a class that teaches the skill of not being a hypocrite seems like it could safely be compatible with just about any set of these Principles.