Decline or stagnation? What's the word for what our country, our culture, our civilization is undergoing? Ross Douthat’s...
This review appears in the Summer 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
Science and the Good stands against attempts of “the new moral science” to reduce morality to evolutionary theory and to render the thorny question of how to behave a case for empirical calculation. For sociologist James Davison Hunter and philosopher Paul Nedelisky, this science assumes “a world whose dominant feature is instrumental . . . and technical rationality, in which the ends of actions are pragmatic and the means are evaluated overwhelmingly in terms of results. If values intervene, they are arbitrary rather than intrinsic to the means and ends of action.” In this world, values are not unlike fairy tales, stories we may well come to cherish but whose objective grounds are nonexistent. There is little space here for the idea that something is the right thing to do, let alone the good.
Most of the book grapples directly with representatives of the new moral science, such as Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Greene, and Sam Harris. Providing a thorough account of the limitations of their approach is necessary work, at least for those amenable to the movement. Toward the end, the authors put their case most clearly:
Precisely because the new moral science has no adequate conception of the social, it has no conceptualization of human goods outside of mutually agreeable individual mental states. Public goods have no existence outside of individual subjectivity, no ontology, no transcendence against which the self would be held to account. How, then, within the framework of the new moral science is one to make ethical sense of the threats to our global environment, to liberty from the expanding surveillance capacities of the state, to the economy from fraud in the banking sector, to justice from the corruption of political, civic, and corporate leadership? How is one to make sense of the sacrifice necessary to achieve social justice? The new moral science provides no categories for comprehending, much less addressing, questions of collective moral failure or aspiration.
What becomes explicit here is the book’s concern with the various kinds of significance our concepts hold and the assumptions about being human they carry with them. The worry underlying Hunter and Nedelisky’s criticism of a science of morality is not only the effect it might have upon the disciplinary realm of ethics but also upon our entire way of thinking about the good life. The internal critique of scientific moralizing thus prompts a larger question, one the authors do not pose until page 211 of 215: “If Not Science, Then What?”
These last pages offer the outlines of an answer. Hunter and Nedelisky suggest a middle ground between “looking into the abyss” of endless relativity and the folly of striving for “a single, totalizing, and universal foundation for moral discourse acceptable to all.” Instead, we must “find a common moral understanding through our particularities—through our differences—and not in spite of them.” Their proposed solution is “the deepening of the quality of our public discourse” on the matters that divide us. Without “a more serious and substantive public discourse, the alternative is simply the imposition of one understanding of the good life over all others.” That is something we have seen in almost every domain, be it religion, politics, science, even certain strands in the humanities.
What might the “deepening of the quality of our public discourse” look like? To answer, we need to consider the role language plays in our ways of seeing. While reading Science and the Good, the pressing issue in my mind was what the language and methods of the new moral science are doing: not just discounting from discourse “the felt life of the mind,” as novelist Marilynne Robinson put it, but also excluding the possibility for discourse itself to have a felt moral component—which might be the very thing on which our reactions and behavior depend.
Language is not only descriptive. It is generative: it can bring things into being. It is easy enough to trivialize this claim by noting that saying sunshine does not make the day brighter and warmer. But that kind of play misses the point that words can make things present that might not otherwise have been. Speaking of forgiveness in a context of conflict can bring another layer of meaning into the conversation and create new possibilities. Language doesn’t only communicate an internal mental state but can occasion a different stance. It can alter tone, attitude, and atmosphere.
And the way a word like forgiveness acquires meaning is nothing simple. We can only know what we’re talking about by using yet more words. If you take my forgiveness to be an assertion of superiority, that is different from believing it to be an act of pity, which is different again from conceiving it as a swing of carefree ease—and different again from understanding it as a wrenching movement of reconciliation. In all these situations, I might simply have said, “I forgive you.” But the significance you understand it to have will derive from the meanings those words already carry for you.
This is not just to say that a word has the capacity to hold different meanings and bear different results. How one experiences forgiveness, as well as how one imagines it, will depend on and emerge from the stories, associations, metaphors, and resonances the term has gathered over time. The way you navigate the meaning of forgiveness is those stories, associations, metaphors, and resonances; it is those collections of worded impressions, which have stuck for the very reason that they are worded. You cannot separate the significance forgiveness has for you from these stories, or images, or phrases.
In order to change the significance of a value-laden concept, the language with which the concept is charged for you will have to change. A different story will have to be found. The very shapes of our concepts require words to be recognized and maintained. Part of the challenge of recovering non-“scientific” morality is that there needs to be some shared appreciation for the truth that language influences not only how we think but also how we discover and understand. Language plays a role in our ways of seeing, even of paying attention; and because it does so, it affects not just how we see, but what we see. Imagination, explored and expressed and expanded in words, is pivotal. Alasdair MacIntyre writes, “That human beings are also in key part what they imagine themselves to be, and how, without works of imagination, human life is diminished, we can only learn from literary and other aesthetic studies.”
Amen: imagination and literature are vital. But is it good enough to recognize ourselves to be “self-interpreting animals,” in Charles Taylor’s phrase, from literature or literary studies alone? Might part of the problem besetting not just the humanities but also “the quality of our public discourse” be that there is no publicly shared framework concerning how human beings interpret themselves to themselves through language? If a broadly human phenomenon is manifest only in a disciplinary specialization, what hope is there for public concepts that make space for the role something like metaphor plays in the public as well as the private imagination, or in our social vision?
Literature is a profound way of deepening our language and our understanding of how it affects, even saturates, every aspect of our lives. But we also need a common framework that acknowledges and can articulate how language might transform the ways we see and interpret, the ways we create significance and make sense of experience. These are deeply ethical phenomena: our attitudes and imaginings decide how we construe meaning, how we make choices, how we interact with and respond to one another, how we behave.
We might do a lot more, then, to emphasize the role language plays in our public lives, starting with classroom education. There are plenty of possibilities in the public adult realm, too. Newspapers might analyze the speeches of politicians to show how their language strives to lead us where they want us to go. Radio shows and advice columns could try to give more depth to notions we think we understand but should pay a lot more attention to, like justice, or respect, or tolerance.
In not drawing more attention to the constitutive role of language, Science and the Good misses a key challenge to the new moral science. Hunter and Nedelisky show the limitations of its method and categories in prescribing human action, but the new moral science is impoverished even in descriptive terms. As Taylor puts it, while “morality can be explained as the reflex in us of the pattern of social cohesion and mutual help which has ensured human survival,” to do so underestimates, even obscures, the “widely different understandings of what morality consists in, the different kinds of inspiration which sustain it, the diverse understandings of belonging, all [of which] can be ignored as epiphenomenal.”
Language is not epiphenomenal. It is at the core of how we navigate the complexities of human living. Language can operate as deception, delusion, manipulation, revelation, communion: the possibilities are endless. And not just for us as individuals. Some public recognition of the role language plays is also necessary, or else my notion of forgiveness, or tolerance, or justice—concepts fundamental to my understanding of morality—remains me talking to myself, remains a dream, unaffected by any lived relationality that could render the concept meaningful to the others involved.
It is in using words that our habits of seeing and imagining, our ways of feeling into concepts, can meet and gain exposure, that my worldview versus yours has a chance of shaking down into sufficient sympathy to halt, listen, and try to understand. In our book reviews, articles, speeches, as in our literature, we have to use language responsibly, perceiving humanity in ways fuller than its transactional motives and evolutionary impulses. We all have to start the task Hunter and Nedelisky set for us. Deepening the quality of public discourse is where the work starts. ♦
Emily Holman is a Polonsky Postdoctoral Fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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