Monday, 23 June 2008

Moral phenomenology

Hot on the heels of the Finland ‘Limits of Personhood’ conference and last week’s ‘Explanation, reduction, and models of psychopathology’ conference in Bristol, I have been invited by Ben Smith (pictured) to contribute to a workshop on moral phenomenology in Durham this week. (The following week is the Royal College of Psychiatry meeting in London and the week after is my own institute’s colloquium on psychiatric assessment.)

Having only had one day to prepare a presentation, my thinking on moral phenomenology is fairly schematic. I will assume no connection to Phenomenology with a capital ‘P’. Then, to count as an analytic form of phenomenology, an approach has to have some connection to subjectivity such as the characteristic experiences of a judging subject, or their form of life. But to count as moral phenomenology, it must be able to take account of a normative constraint on our thinking. Together this dual condition balances subjectivity and objectivity.

There may be a number of moral philosophical approaches that could be described as moral phenomenology construed in this way. But I am interested in the way McDowell’s discussion of normativity might underpin a form in either of two ways.

We might think of moral norms as exerting an endogenous constraint on our judgement (eg via a form of moral principlism). Although McDowell himself advocates something that looks exogenous – our eyes can be opened to values implicit in empirical situations – his discussion of endogenous constraint would fit the dual condition. But there is something initially awkward seeming, at least, about the way McDowell rejects the dualism of endogenous and exogenous whilst attempting to maintain, against Quine and Davidson, ‘interesting’ analytic truths. Without a distinct endogenous factor, from what are such truths fashioned? In fact, it seems that the rejection of the endogenous given is doing the main work.

On the exogenous side, to follow McDowell’s own account of moral judgement, our thinking can – given substantial background work – answer directly to evaluative and motivating factors in the world. But his recent two-fold retreat both from the idea that experience is propositionally structured (ie shares the same conceptual form as the explicit judgements it can non-inferentially motivate) and that all the contents in the explicit judgements it can non-inferentially motivate are contained within it threatens this neat idea. If experience contains only the proper and common sensibles of vision, how is direct moral realism experienced?

I wish I could connect these two ideas in a revealing fashion (maybe the latter is a retreat from Hegelianism which might itself amount to a form of endogenous constraint?) but this will have to be the focus of my presentation.