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Moral Idiocy

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8 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    1. A narrow point, apropos of “A well-crafted legal brief is a failure if it is unconcerned with the interests of the client for whom it is written”: what about concern for the interests of those affected by your client’s actions, if you believe your client was in the wrong, or is seeking to do something wrong? Doesn’t your account of moral idiocy mean one needs to be more discriminating in accepting (and continuing) engagements?

    2. Do you think that the larger problem you lament is exacerbated by the fact that in recent decades an increasing number of our elites (among whom I include those who have a graduate education, including in business or law), and perhaps too of the public at large, have been taught that the greatest good results from each person’s promoting his or her own self-interest?

    3. To what extent do the pace of change promoted by our economic system and the societal encouragement to present oneself, via new technologies, to ever-larger sections of the public in more or less real-time (within which category I’d include, inter alia, Twitter, blogs, social networking, cable TV news and, for some, publish-or-perish) challenge the development of these moral skills?

  2. This is a very thoughtful article, and I agree with much of the exposition. However, I believe you take an unjustified turn towards the end, here:

    “… but I would add that we do not lack the psychological and moral ability to cultivate a capacity for self-awareness, for concern for others, or for taking care in what we do. Or, to put my point a different way, there is no “metacognitive regress”—we do not lack the skills necessary for recognizing our own limitations (our own lack of metacognitive skills), for these are moral, not intellectual, capacities.”

    I don’t see how that makes sense at all. Wouldn’t this imply that the people with brain traumas are thus somehow lacking in moral capacities? I think you’ve tried to argue out of a corner, by assertion, the problem being: if people don’t know what they don’t know, how can they be blamed for that in a moral sense?

    The difficultly with this issue is once you outline the overall problem, what then? Of course humility and caution are good things – but by itself, that’s just preaching. It still doesn’t tell anyone how to apply it, especially because crucial decisions have to be made all the time on imperfect and incomplete information.

    Socrates might also not be the best example, as the moral idiocy he was decrying was pretty widely seen as a political argument that dictators need to rule Athens rather than the citizens who were supposedly such idiots.

  3. Seth,

    Socrates appreciated the virtues of Athenian democracy (it tolerated to a degree not found elsewhere both philosophical activity and moral criticism; and of course Athens was well known in the ancient world for both its liberty and equality) although he thought in several respects (e.g., early moral education) that Sparta and Crete were also well governed. But of the three, the Crito appears to make clear that he nonetheless preferred his native city to the other two. He was indeed concerned about the moral obtuseness of his fellow citizens, and this concern was not at all subordinate to (or simply a premise of) a political argument, unless by such an argument one is referring to the comparative political freedom Athenians possessed and Socrates exploited (owing to the ‘silence of the law’ in this regard). Ideally, the morally virtuous should rule, short of that, the Athenian legal system and polis generally had much to recommend it. As Richard Kraut writes,

    “[Socrates] was a critic of democracy in the sense that he criticized the way the many ruled, and saw no theoretical justification for democracy. But at the same time, there was no feasible alternative that he preferred. Athens provided its citizens with precisely the conditions they needed in order to make moral progress, and that gave Socrates an overwhelming reason to be pleased with its legal system.”

    I think Kraut’s book, Socrates and the State (1984) remains the best treatment of this topic.

    * * *

    And for what it’s worth, I also think Professor Crocker is absolutely right “that we do not lack the psychological and moral ability to cultivate a capacity for self-awareness, for concern for others, or for taking care in what we do.” These may not be intellectual activities as such (if only because they encompass the emotions as well) but I think they are nonetheless and in some measure still “cognitive,” hence the term “self-knowledge” used often as a synonym for “self-awareness” and the fact that both self-knowledge and self-awareness in the Indic philosophical schools involves cognitive processes (e.g., knowledge of the ‘self’…or ‘non-self’ in the case of Buddhism) and different states of consciousness (i.e., states of awareness different if not ‘higher’ than routine states of awareness in our everyday lives). Of course self-knowledge is not like conventional propositional knowledge and thus might be said to be in some sense or in the end, “non-propositional knowledge” (for a nice discussion of this in Platonic thought, please see Francisco J. Gonzalez’s Dialectic and Dialogue: Plato’s Practice of Philosophical Inquiry, 1998).

    I believe not a few religious traditions have teachings and exemplars that outline in theory and praxis (for a largely Christian example, see John C. Cottingham’s The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value, 2005; Joel Kupperman and Herbert Fingarette provide perspectives from Daoism and Confucianism; and there are quite a few works on this grounded in the Indic religio-philosophical systems) the necessary if not sufficient conditions for cultivating, nurturing or provoking our psychological and moral capacities for an expanded self-awareness, for an ever-widening concern for others, and for taking deliberate and sensitive care in all that we do. Outside of religious traditions, philosophical schools like the Stoics (see Martha Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire…, 1994, and John C. Cottingham’s Philosophy and the Good Life: Reason and the Passions in Greek, Cartesian and Psychoanalytic Ethics, 1998).

    Moral idiocy, or what I prefer to call moral obtuseness, is a variation on the theme of Erich Fromm’s locution, the “pathology of normalcy.” What is at issue here is to what extent some view this as an ineradicable feature of the human condition (literally or figuratively, original sin, the fall from grace, etc.) or whether, like Condorcet or William Godwin, or even Jesus himself (‘Be ye perfect…’), we are perfectible creatures (in the Godwininan sense, which by definition rules out ‘perfection’), in principle capable of open-ended growth with regard to our psychological and moral capacities, self-knowledge or self-awareness, and the virtues (in short, ‘values-realization’ for ourselves and others). Rabbinic, Stoic, and Buddhist traditions, for instance, emphasize the potential, in theory at least, for all of us to overcome such moral obtuseness and obduracy, to transcend what is also called “false consciousness,” in other words, to ascend out of the Platonic Cave of darkness and have a vision of the Good (followed by a descent back into the den of darkness and particulars, the latter now seen in a new light as it were). This means all of us would have an obligation to practice what were once (and largely still are) the prerogatives of elites: the contemplative arts and philosophy.

    Finally, in both the novels and philosophical writings of Iris Murdoch we’ll find the subject of our “psychological and moral ability to cultivate a capacity for self-awareness, for concern for others, [and] for taking care in what we do,” addressed in a manner exemplifying the virtues of both the novelist’s art and the philosopher’s craft.

  4. Erratum : “Outside of religious traditions, philosophical schools like the Stoics…virtue and care ethics, neo-Freudian psychology (e.g., Jonathan Lear), and some schools of humanistic and existentialist psychology, evidence similar or identical foci of concern.”

  5. It perhaps should also be pointed out that the commitment to “perfectibility” does not, have some have thought or insinuated, involve a lack of appreciation for evil in the world, a naivete about the ubiquitousness or recalcitrance of evil and suffereing, or a failure to appreciate the gap between how individuals behave and the goals, ends or ideals they endeavor to instantiate, embody, realize and so forth (i.e., the gap between what ‘is’ and what ‘ought’ to be). There appear to be positive looping and feedback effects for our conceptions of human nature that act on the order of a self-fufilling prophecy (Ian Hacking has talked about such mechanisms with respect to what he terms ‘human kinds’) such that we become more or less, in the bosom of time, what we fancy ourselves to be.

    I would like also to give a more concrete example from John Cottingham by way of illustrating the arts of contemplation and philosophy. Cottingham first explains what he means by “spirituality,” which he distinguishes from religion proper (the latter is, arguably, often thought to be a necessary yet not sufficient condition for the former), which has to do with the primacy of praxis over beliefs and thus immediately takes us beyond preoccupation with intellectual questions as such. As he explains, at one end of the spectrum of definitions of spirituality we

    “find the term used in connection with activities and attitudes which command widespread appeal, irrespective of metaphysical commitment or doctrinal allegiance. Even the most convinced atheist may be prepared to avow an interest in the ‘spiritual’ dimension of human existence, if that dimension is taken to cover forms of life that put a premium on certain kinds of intensely focused moral and aesthetic response, or on the search for deeper reflective awareness of the meaning of our lives and of our relationship to others and the natural world. [....] Spirituality has long been understood to be a concept that is concerned in the first instance with activities rather than theories, with ways of living rather than doctrines subscribed to, with praxis rather than belief. In the history of philosophy, the epithet ‘spiritual’ is most commonly coupled not with the term ‘beliefs’ but with the term ‘exercises.’ [....] There were many Stoic treatises entitled ‘On Exercises,’ and the central notion of askesis, found for example in Epictetus, implied not so much ‘asceticism’ in the modern sense as a practical programme of training, concerned with the ‘art of living.’ Fundamental to such programmes was learning the technique of prosoche—attention, a continuous vigilance and presence of mind (a notion, incidentally, that calls to mind certain Buddhist spiritual techniques). Crucial also was the mastery of methods for the ordering of the passions—what has been called [by Martha Nussbaum] the therapy of desire. The general aim of such programmes was not merely intellectual enlightenment, or the imparting of abstract theory, but a transformation of the whole person, including our patterns of emotional response.”

    While Cottingham further elaborates upon this notion of spirituality as it applies to Christianity and theism more broadly, we can see the more explicitly philosophical dimension of what is involved in a shift in one’s mentality, in a change of one’s heart, in embarking on a path of practical self-transformation, in Michael McGhee’s Transformations of Mind: Philosophy as Spiritual Practice (2000).

  6. errratum: “It perhaps should also be pointed out that the commitment to “perfectibility” does not, as some have thought or insinuated….”

  7. Thomas Crocker says:

    Thank you for all the thoughtful responses. Patrick is perceptive to see Iris Murdoch in the background to my thinking on this issue. Matthew Crawford also discusses Murdoch in the section of his book I discuss.

    A.J. Sutter’s first point is interesting. For a lawyer to avoid being idiosyncratic in the way that Crawford discusses in the quoted passage, she must consider her client’s interests, but to cultivate a robust moral capacity she would have to be aware of broader social interests, or the interests of third parties, as well (which may or may not influence her representation of the client). I think that the avoidance of moral idiocy here is about being aware of how what one does affects others, and attending to the proper object of one’s craft (which is something other than oneself), and does not lead to any specific conclusion about what one ought to do in response to that awareness. So perhaps one might feel morally incapable of representing a client as a first-order moral position that follows from the self-awareness about the effects on others, but avoiding moral idiocy does not require a particular conclusion about whether to provide the representation (though it may (ought to?) influence how one represents the client).

    At least a degenerate form of teaching that seeking self-interest will as if by the magic of an invisible hand lead to greater social happiness may be an issue here. If this form of egoism is incapable of recognizing the effects on others, and the ways that others help create the possibility of one’s own self, then yes, such forms of self-interest would contribute to moral idiocy. As Crawford mimes the supposed motorcycle “mechanic” — what do I care, it’s not my problem. So, such a simplistic form of self-interest would be a form of idiocy. One would hope that social networking could foster a sense of connectedness to others, and a concern for their well-being. I do not have a good sense of whether this will help develop a person’s concern for self-knowledge and a person’s concern for the obligations of care to his practices and crafts.

    Finally, to add to Patrick’s response regarding my main point that everyday anosognosia must begin as a moral failing, I implicitly made a distinction between anosognosia caused by brain trauma and disease, and what Errol Morris explored with Dunning and Kruger as an “everyday” anosognosia. That is, my focus is on the possibility of being unskilled, unaware, and unconcerned about one’s lack of skill and awareness that might plague a person’s everyday activities such as motorcycle maintenance. It is this possibility that I see as caused by a moral failure that begins with a lack of concern for self-awareness or self-knowledge. I do not want to make any claims about the moral lives of those who suffer mental disabilities from known physical causes like brain injuries. It is true that my post does not tell us much about the mechanics of how to avoid moral idiocy, as Seth suggests, other than to say that we should foster self-knowledge, humility, and concern for others (persons and the objects of our crafts). But, my post ends where ethics and morality begin. Here’s a way of putting my point: a necessary condition for the possibility of ethics and morality is the fact that possibility of everyday anosognosia must be limited ultimately by human capacities for self-knowledge and concern. Since most do believe in the possibility of our engaging in ethical practices, then we must also be committed to the impossibility of an anosognosic regress (that we may lack the capacity to recognize our lack of awareness and skill in engaging in first-order moral reasoning). As a basic fact, I’m asserting that we have the ability to choose whether to care about our own blindnesses and limitations, and this is an important first moral choice (again, otherwise morality would be impossible) that both limits everyday anosognosia, and helps us understand how it might function in our lives.

  8. Steve Shor says:

    Thomas-
    Just got to your article and found it to be incredibly insightful and rewarding.

    I’ve quickly emailed it to a few of my friends to see if I am suffering anosogonosic tendencies or if I know what I like when I read it.

    I think I like beautiful prose, and your article on Moral Idiocy is just that. Beautiful prose.

    Thank you

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