Citizenship, Practical Reason and Narrative Ethics
Department of Philosophy
We will achieve no lasting moral progress unless and until the daily unremarkable lives of people distant from us become real in the fabric of our own daily lives, until our everyday eudaimonistic judgments about our important ends include them as ends…” (Nussbaum, 2003, p.249)
High standards need strong sources. (Taylor, 1989, p. 516).
By what process does a value such as that of compassion, or generosity, ‘become real’ for us? How do we make the transition from indifference to verbal consent to wholehearted commitment to a value so that it becomes part of the ‘fabric of our lives’? What ‘sources’ are there to support our values? Do we just decide, by an act of will, to include these concerns once we conclude that they are reasonable? How do we expand our ‘standing desires’, the ones which do motivate us on a daily basis, to include something as large as the well-being of distant people or factory farmed animals?
There are two very general opposing approaches to this set of questions taken by philosophers and social scientists. Those who aspire to a scientific description of the world want to claim that there are no values in nature. Others find the reduction of thinking to scientific thinking to be a mistake and seeking to escape the deleterious effects of such ‘scientism’ have reintroduced a broader concept of thinking which includes moral understanding (Polanyi, 1962; Murdoch, 1970; Nussbaum,1990; Taylor, 1989; Taylor, 2000; Taylor, 2002; Wiggins, 2002; MacIntyre, 1984; McDowell,2002; Bruner, 1990). “To insist upon explanation in terms of ‘causes’ simply bars us from trying to understand how human beings interpret their worlds and how we interpret their acts of interpretation” (Bruner, 1990, p. xiii). According to the views I wish to describe in this paper interpretations are not merely arbitrary productions of the human mind, explicable, if at all, in terms of a causal history. “It is a terrible thing to try to live a life without believing in anything . But surely that doesn’t mean that just any old set of concerns and beliefs will do….Surely if any old set would do, that is the same as life’s being meaningless (Wiggins, 2002, p. 89).
The aim of this paper is to draw attention to some valuable recent writings on moral understanding and moral motivation. There are interesting parallels to be found in discussions of practical reason, narrative and the use of metaphor in poetry. My hope is that attention to these insights will enhance our appreciation of the kind of reflection and conversation that contributes to moral understanding as well as to insights about the difficult problem of extending moral motivation to include the concerns of distant sufferers within the ‘fabric of our lives’.
The Theory of Practical Reason
“Generally practical reason is any reasoning aiming at a conclusion concerning what to do” (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 1996). For contemporary Virtue Theorists it is the ability to reason well about things that are of importance in life; such reasoning issues in good judgment in practice. This form of reasoning includes reasoning about the ‘ends’ worth pursuing and the best means to these ends.
Once we manage to discern which values call for realization in a particular situation, that is to say which ends are both worth pursuing and feasible in specific situations, we come to see that some of the means to these ends are themselves ‘constitutive’ of the ends in question. This line of thinking is a useful corrective to any orientation that is too focused on the final product. A good deal of meaning and satisfaction is to be derived from the activities which constitute our practices. So when we are reflecting upon what to do, that is trying to determine what the important thing is in any specific situation, we discover that certain responses count in themselves as the partial or total realization of the end (Wiggins, 2002, p. 220). The goal of many of our activities is realized in the doing. For example, an act of courage such as speaking up in public on behalf of corporate justice as Ray Anderson has done (Bakan, 2004) can be assessed both for its success, ‘did this act accomplish the persuasion intended?’ as well as for its ‘intrinsic’ value. Acts of courage are valuable as such because courage is a good and worthy trait, it is part of a life well lived, independently of its usefulness on particular occasions. A person makes use of this kind of thinking when he or she
deliberates about what kind of life he wants to lead, or deliberates in a determinate context about which of several possible course of action would conform most closely to some ideal he holds before himself, or deliberates about what would constitute eudaimonia [human flourishing or happiness] here and now, or (less solemnly) deliberates about what would count as the achievement of the not yet completely specific goal which he has already set himself in the given situation (Wiggins, 2002, p. 220).
a very stark view [and] sees no meaning in anything. But it is evidently absurd to try to reduce the sharpness of the viewpoint by saying that meaning can be introduced into the world thus seen by the addition of human commitment. Commitment to what? [Such a] conceptual scheme articulates nothing that it is humanly possible to care about (Wiggins, 2002, p. 121).
One can only grasp the significance of right conduct “via the notion of a virtuous person. … from the inside out” (McDowell, 1998, p. 50). The whole process of reasoning about our highest ideals must take place from within ‘moral space’. “My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done..” (Taylor, 1989, p. 27). If we have no clue about the value of generosity we will need some powerful experience to give us the clue. Similarly when we waffle and act inconsistently it is because we lack a rich and vivid experiential understanding of the value. The cultivation of virtue is precisely the cultivation of this vivid sense of commitment.
This way of characterizing moral understanding has an almost trivial air to it. It sounds like basic common sense. Yet we live in a culture, both social and intellectual, which repeatedly tells us to maximize pleasure and minimize pain at any cost, and we are continuously exposed to the idea that a life well lived is a life in pursuit of the satisfaction of as many desires as possible. The point that virtue theorists want to emphasize is that not all desires and not all pleasures are part of a worthy life (Nussbaum, 1990; MacIntyre, 2001). Take, for example, the desire for knowledge. From the perspective of Aristotle’s theory, knowledge is a good thing, not because we sometimes desire knowledge, which we do, but on the contrary, we desire knowledge because it is a good thing independently of the state of our desires (Taylor, 1989; Finnis, 1980). This reverses the current culturally embedded idea that things are only good if they are the objects of desire. But putting desire at the head of the list, so to speak, prevents us from finding criteria for choosing among desires, and from knowing which desires to cultivate and which to minimize.
How do we cultivate the right desires and how do we sharpen our appreciation of values so that we are capable of creative solutions to practical problems? We need experience coupled with reflection so as to cultivate a moral understanding that increases in breadth and depth (Kekes, 1984) returning us constantly to the richness of the world. Narrative is the vehicle which takes us directly into that world because narrative understanding involves a pulling together of elements into a gestalt, much the way practical reasoning involves a pulling together of the major premise with the minor premise to engender a new gestalt.
The phrase ‘narrative knowing’ is redundant because the root of ‘narrative’ is ‘gnarare, gnarus’: ‘knowing’, ‘to give an account of ‘ (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1968). Yet in a world heavily influenced by scientific paradigms of knowledge and rational decision making, it is worth emphasizing the cognitive component of narrative and, showing, as I hope to do here, that narrative provides the occasion for us to enrich and renew our knowledge of what is important in human life. Further, I want to show that narrative can provide emotional contact with the deepest “sources” of our standards and ideals.
In this section I begin with a story which illustrates an ‘epiphany’ which for Charles Taylor is the means of breaking through from ordinary thinking to contact with our moral sources. I will analyze the story making use of Ricoeur’s notion of ‘plot’ and ‘making present’.
The Language Lesson
You walk the halls of this place, and what do you see from room to room? Most people peer in and see this retarded child or that one. They focus on this particular mannersim or that deformity. I do it too. It’s very compelling, that picture.
But one kid flipped me around on that. We were doing language exercises. And for some godforsaken reason I’d chose the exchange “How are you?” …”I’m doing fine.”We’d go back and forth. Well, he was having quite a hard time of it, slurring out, “Iy dluee fie” or some such. “Let’s try again, really slowly,” I said. “How … are…you?” And he slurred “Iy dluee fie”. Then suddenly he b urst into this wonderful crazy laugh. It was the nuttiest sound we’d ever heard, either of us. He wasn’t doing fine at all. Neither was I. We were doing terribly. It was absurd. We just befan to howl.
In the midst of that he suddenly gave me this very clear look-the eyes behind the expression. And I had a sudden thought: “My God, he knows more that I’ll ever know about all this. He sees the whole situation.” At which point he just scrunched up his face like a clown and gave me this wonderful wink.
I was just stunned. All I could see was this incredible sense of the humor of things. It was so deep in him. He just had it all in perspective. And he gave that perspective to me.
When I left him, my head was spinning. I walked down the hall and looked into the other rooms, at kids I’d known, or so I’d thought, for months. It was totally new. I don’t quite know how to describe it. In this room I saw courage. In that room I saw joy. Across the hall, patience. In yet another room , such sweetness: a little boy who was so continuously filled with love.. (cited in Dass & Gorman, 1985, pp. 140-141).
Three elements of this story stand out as examples of the kind of narrative knowing that enhances our grasp of value: surprise, humor and awe. The story begins with ordinary categories of thought: ‘retarded’ children, and the ‘logical’ approach to problem solving which states that if there is a deficiency, repeated practice will remedy it. The surprise comes with the sudden flash of recognition of the incongruity of that approach, repeating this particular sentence whose meaning was absurdly false in the context. This opens a dimension that was previously hidden from view: the emotional recognition of deep human values.
Following Charles Taylor we can characterize this experience as an ‘epiphany’. The term ‘epiphany’ has its roots in the Greek word ‘phainos’, that which appears or is manifest. Taylor has made use of this notion to support his view that the strong sources which we need to support our high standards are to be found in the experience of epiphanies. When a technical and instrumental society like our own promotes the view of disengaged reason and entrenches this outlook in its institutions it offers images of life which “occlude deeper meanings making them hard to discern” (Taylor, 1989, p. 500). Any retrieval of the lived experience or creative activity underlying our awareness of the world can work toward establishing contact with the sources of value and combating the hold of mechanistic thinking (Taylor, 1989, p. 460-461). Narratives such as the one above can contribute to a sense of resonance, depth or richness of experience and move us away from the intellectual repudiations and denials which stultify us by cutting us off from the empowerment available in the acknowledgement of goodness (Taylor, 1989, p.504)
But what elements of narrative enable us to break through to the underlying values? Ricoeur has identified the plot as the organizing function of the story. The plot is a gathering together of the events of the story into a meaningful whole which expresses some human concern or value. The events of the story consist of actions and experiences whose sense is given by means of the plot (Ricoeur, 1981, p. 170). These actions, and the thoughts and feelings surrounding them, move in a certain direction, toward a conclusion. The conclusion of a story is not something that follows deductively from the events and the plot. Rather, the conclusion is something unpredictable which must be acceptable to the audience. “The conclusion is the ‘pole of attraction’ of the entire development” (Ricoeur, 1981, p. 170). The conclusion works if the audience is open to the idea that these sorts of events can happen and can have the meaning implied in the story. In the story of the Language Lesson the events of the lesson and the sudden sense of the absurd become meaningful as vehicles for creating a shift of perspective from the ordinary to the extraordinary. The shift of perspective records an epiphany: a sense of awe at the recognition of the presence of courage, joy, and love. The conclusion offers the hearer the occasion to experience an epiphany.
. Ricoeur places this analysis of narrative within a discussion of Heidegger’s notion of the “publicness of Being-in-the-world with one another” (Ricoeur, 1981, p. 172). When a story is told it gathers together an audience of those who collude in the interpretation of events as described in the story and this gathering involves a sense of being-in-time which is different than the ordinary notion of clock-time as a series of equal moments moving toward infinity. The being-in-time of a narration is first of all the shared time of the characters of the story, and secondly that sense of the present which the listerners experience when the plot of the story is ‘made present’. Narrative combines the chronological and the non-chronological: the chronological consists of the episodes or events of the story, while the non-chronological consists in “the configurational dimension, according to which the plot construes significant wholes out of scattered events” (Ricoeur, 1981, p. 174). It is the latter element, the ‘grasping together’ into a whole of a set of events that is similar to the exercise of practical reason, which, as we have seen, is also a bringing together, or a making present in one moment, the salient features of a particular situation with our general values.
Both practical reason and narrative knowing are forms of thinking that require linking together two dimensions of experience, our sense of what is important, of value, and the particular events which, seen through the lens of value, are appreciated for the value they have . Both practical reason and narrative activity make present the value dimension in the world. Values appear clothed in the specifics of the situation in the case of practical reason and in the specifics of the events in the story. Grasping the enacted values is a kind of thinking that does not fit the model of scientific thinking nor the model of rational decision making, which involves arbitrarily deciding that something is going to count as a value, to be projected out on a value neutral world. Valuing is better described as a form of discovery of what is there to be valued. This is illustrated particularly well by the story The Language Lesson because it is a story about the experience of discovery.
But discoveries are useless if they remain as isolated events in our consciousness. To be genuine sources of knowledge and value discoveries need to be linked. In other words, the epiphanies that break through the ordinary experience of life would simply fade away from consciousness if we could not connect them with other events and experiences. The process of connecting experiences of value or meaning is illustrated by a story told to me by a friend from India, which I never tire of hearing.
I was a young man at the time and I went to visit a friend. I was surprised to find a famous guru at his house. The guru spoke to me for a while and then asked me what I had to give him. I was yound and sceptical and generally confused about life and thought ‘Oh these gurus they always want something’. I was also poor at the time, I was a student. I replied that I had only what he saw,, my old sandals repaired so many times they were beyond repair, the clothes on my back and one more set of clothes at home and an old bicycle given to my father. He said “I’ll take the sandal”. So I said “okay, here they are” and handed him my sandals. He said “you can go now”. So I left not even having visited my friend. Out in the street it was forty five degrees, very hot and my feet were burning and I couldn’t even ride my bike as I had bare feet. I was wondering what foolishness I had committed when, having walked about a hundred yards I saw a good friend approaching. He said Matther “ what are you doing walking without sandals? Where are your sandals?” I said “Never mind, it’s a long story”. He was carrying a parcel wrapped in paper. He said here I have just had a pair of sandals made for me and there was some confusion and they made a pair that was too small and then they made a pair the right size and they gave me the extra pair at no cost. Take them”. I took the sandals, and put them on my feet. They fit perfectly and were the finest chappals I’ve ever seen before or since. Then I remembered the guru has said “your karma is to give”. So I give and I don’t worry about it. I never worrry about material things. (Veejay Matther, personal communication).
In this paper I have attempted to throw some light on the question “what sort of reflection leads to moral understanding?”, with a view to the possibility of deepening our moral responses to the global community. I have suggested that the approach to moral life taken by virtue theory offers insights about the development of moral motivation and about the kind of reflection that is involved in practical reasoning. The focal point of the discussion was Taylor’s concern with the moral bankruptcy we risk from holding ideals in the absence of the motivation necessary to include these ideals in our daily lives. I made use of his notion of ‘epiphany’, which, like all of the organizing concepts of this paper, cannot be captured in any definition stating necessary and sufficient conditions. I suggested that having such an experience is no guarantee of being able to sustain high ideals, in other words, it is neither logically sufficient nor, logically necessary. Within this vaguely described terrain, however, there are truths that can be recognized from experience. Those lacking the experience will find this of little use, and those who have had such experiences might, at best, be reminded to pay more attention to the possibilities that arise in situations which we construe with the dynamic methods of practical reason, narrative or poetry.
I became interested in the notion of epiphanies as a moral source during my own experience of illness when the rigorous ordeals of treatment for breast cancer left me vulnerable but open to the many sources of support, kindness and beauty that are there, beneath the surface of things, waiting to be tapped. The two friends whose story and poem appear in this paper exercised their magic, repeatedly, during the most difficult moments of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and mastectomy. My thought is that these small epiphanies, which so enhanced my life, might be of the same order as the larger epiphanies necessary to respond well to the demands of a globalizing world. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the desperate plight of the majority of people of the world, and of the animals and the environment as well, is something which is becoming increasingly salient to many more of us who have surpluses in our lives. Since these are large issues they call for large epiphanies.