‘Morality for Humans’ by Mark Johnson

‘Morality for Humans’ by Mark Johnson (University of Chicago Press, 2014): review by Robert M. Ellis

Mark Johnson is one of the co-creators (with George Lakoff) of the embodied meaning thesis, and his earlier books on meaning can be highly recommended. This most recent one (2014), however, is the outcome of an engagement with ethics that obviously goes back to well before his earlier ethics book, ‘Moral Imagination’ (1993). Although I do have disagreements with some of the ways it is framed, nevertheless in my view this book excels any of his previous work that I have read, and probably makes him the most interesting, practically useful, inter-disciplinary and creative philosopher that I have come across still working in a university today. One of the main reasons I feel able to offer such praise is that he is still asking nearly all the relevant questions, meeting new forms of evidence and argument from all directions, and not ignoring some of the questions (as so many philosophers do) to narrow his focus too much. His conclusions are also synthetic rather than solely analytic. He writes with academic rigour, but has not allowed the pressures of the academy to significantly narrow his thinking: that in itself is a remarkable achievement. Unfortunately the fact that he is writing in a thoroughly academic style, and primarily addressing other academics, means this book will probably not reach the wider audience it deserves. (The fact that a paperback edition has still not been issued – due Sept 2015 – probably won’t help here either.)Morality for Humans

The central problem addressed by the book is that of the relationship between what we know about ourselves through various forms of scientific enquiry, and an ethics that is not just a description of what we value and how we make ethical judgements, but also a prescription, i.e. actually offers us an understanding of how ethical judgements can be justified. Probably the most interesting chapter in the book is chapter 5, where he focuses on how we can go through moral deliberation in ways that are better or worse, but without basing our judgements on traditional deduction from an absolute moral principle. Johnson draws extensively on John Dewey’s earlier, but much neglected work from the 1920’s and 30’s here, and develops with his help an explanation of a better moral deliberation as one that reflectively considers a wider range of competing values. When we think morally, we simulate or run through mentally a range of different goals and ways of reaching those goals. It is not just that our values are inevitable and we calculate ways of achieving them, nor that we have a completely open ‘free’ choice, but rather that the more adequate our moral deliberation, the more goals, values, and facts (in my habitual language, the more desires, meanings and beliefs) we take into account.

This way of thinking about the prescriptive value of our judgements closely parallels the approach I have myself been developing – at least when one unpacks the differences in language and framing. For me, the concept of integration is a central one in this kind of moral evaluation, and Johnson seems to implicitly recognise the concept of integration both in the short-term context of a particular judgement (where he talks about ‘reasonable choice’ and the value of ‘wide reflective equilibrium’) and as a long-term aspect of character (where he takes the term ‘conscientiousness’ from Dewey to refer to a long-term flexible capacity to consider different factors). The way I would put it is that the more integrated a judgement, the better – and for me, the nature of judgement is understood, very much as Johnson understands it, as involving the interaction between ‘a self and its acts’.

Johnson’s account of the goal of the morally integrative process, taken from Dewey, is ‘growth itself’. There can be no further answer, Johnson wisely suggests, because the demand for a further goal would presuppose moral absolutism. Clearly the value of the dialectical moral progress that he and Dewey are advocating, where a wider reflective equilibrium means more progress, is found in the experience of that progress itself, and although it may often have beneficial consequences, one could not specify what these are in advance, because to widen our perspective means to take into account what we don’t know yet.

Johnson also puts forward arguments (of a kind I was already thoroughly convinced of) against all false distinctions between moral and other kinds of judgement, whether these are based on the fact-value distinction or related false distinctions between ‘reason’ and ‘emotion’. In the light of the way our brains work and in the light of the associated embodied meaning thesis that Johnson has put forward, there are no grounds for such distinctions. Johnson also argues against ‘faculty psychology’ and the assumption that there is a separate moral faculty that processes experience differently from other faculties. In short, he offers large quantities of evidence and argument against what he calls ‘moral fundamentalism’, that is, the assumption that we apply ethics by deducing the right applications of absolute moral principles discovered in a ‘moral faculty’. At the same time he avoids moral relativism in his explanation of how some moral deliberations can be prescriptively better than others.

But does Johnson hit the Middle Way? Well, here we strike my main reservation about the book, which concerns the overall way that Johnson frames his position. Johnson presents himself as a moral naturalist – which puts him theoretically in the same bed as Sam Harris, whose book I have also just reviewed. Actually he is light years away from the crude thinking of Sam Harris, a determinist who seems to have no interest in moral judgement or deliberation. There are obviously a range of thinkers who describe themselves as moral naturalists, and Johnson’s approach to it is very much inspired by Dewey, who also uses the term. To put the difference between Johnson’s approach to naturalism and the more common one as briefly as I can, I’d say that the standard naturalist approach tackles ethics in terms of science, whereas Dewey’s and Johnson’s approach (at least at its best) sees some commonalities of method between ethics and science. Normal moral naturalism simply reduces values to facts, whereas Johnson’s (at least potentially, or at times) seems to be teetering on the edge of acknowledging that science and ethics are subject to the same sorts of judgement.

One of my problems with this approach is that Johnson never makes sufficiently clear whether science is also subject to the process of deliberation he is discussing, so that one is never quite clear whether science and ethics are more on a genuinely equal footing, or whether, at times, he is slipping into the kind of unquestioned superiority for scientific judgement one gets in standard naturalism. If science is also to be judged in this way, what we have in effect here is a unified theory of incremental objectivity – which is what I have been developing myself ever since my Ph.D. thesis ‘A Theory of Objectivity’ – but Johnson offers no indication that this is his intention, even if a lot of discussion of science would be deemed outside the scope of the book. If it is the process of judgement itself that makes science more objective, rather than its results, then this has considerable implications for how we view science. If anything, it seems that scientific judgement may be judged less objective than the best moral judgement, because (if philosophers of science like Lakatos and Kuhn are to be believed) science normally works on the basis of unquestioned paradigms, that only get discarded after a long process of testing that has proved unfruitful – the ‘reflective equilibrium’ of science is thus likely to be narrower than that of ethics (at least in the hands of its best practitioners), which may be more able to take into account a variety of possible standpoints, paradigms and goals. If science is on an equal footing with ethics, why are we talking about moral naturalism rather than, say, scientific ethicalism, or some other term that shows we are just as much applying our understanding of the process of moral deliberation to science as the reverse?

It does seem to be the case that Dewey, on whom Johnson draws a good deal, did call himself a naturalist. However, the most distinctive and exciting thing about Dewey to my mind is the way he synthesised the best of the empiricist/ naturalist tradition with the Hegelian tradition that also greatly influenced him. If Dewey had been regarded as a Hegelian who questioned the dogmas of Hegelianism and took on board insights from empiricism, rather than an empiricist who questioned the dogmas of empiricism and took on insights from Hegelianism, I’m not sure that it would have made much difference to the content of his philosophy. Hegel’s absolute idealism and his sweeping claims about the purpose of history are just metaphysical dogmas, but the dialectical process (with normative value emerging from the progressive synthesis of previously opposed tendencies) that Hegel made use of is the crucial element in Johnson’s account of moral normativity. The Deweyan dialectic is also reminiscent of philosophies that avoid Hegel’s historicism: Popperian approaches to science and Buddhist philosophies such as that of Nagarjuna. Where, too, do we find the philosophy of growth as a value in itself most strongly articulated today? Probably in the context of the psychologically and Buddhist influenced movement for personal and spiritual growth.

So if this is ‘naturalism’, it is certainly not naturalism as we know it. I think it could perfectly well be re-articulated in terms of the creative edge of a number of other approaches: one could read it as neo-Hegelian, as I have already indicated. One could also read it as Buddhist, if one takes the indescribability (and hence irrelevance) of the goal of ‘enlightenment’ as seriously as one ought, and focuses on spiritual and moral development in immediate experience, as many Buddhists in fact do. The process of developing wide reflective equilibrium has been developed for many centuries in Buddhist meditation techniques. Of course, one can also read Johnson’s approach in the terms of Middle Way Philosophy, as I have been doing. None of these approaches necessarily exclude making full use of the fruits of psychology and neuroscience in the way that Johnson has done, because naturalism does not have a monopoly on the method and use of science – it is just one philosophical interpretation of it.

Perhaps the biggest stumbling-block to Johnson recognising more fully that his approach is not just the product of the naturalist tradition is the way he appears to share the widespread naturalist misunderstanding of scepticism, going back to Hume or before. Johnson never discusses scepticism in this book, but it seems clear by implication that he has not considered the possibility that negative dogmas are as bad as positive dogmas, or that the avoidance of dogma itself may have a moral value, both key aspects of Pyrrhonian scepticism and of the Middle Way. A position that I would call sceptical is often implicit in statements like ‘Good moral reflection requires us to remain open to the possible questioning of any aspect of our received view’ (p. 129), as well as in his clear condemnation of moral fundamentalism as immoral because it does not support the process of moral deliberation. Johnson would only really have to draw out some of the implications of his account of moral deliberation a little further to reach a view closely resembling the Middle Way, but he concentrates solely on the positive process of moral deliberation, rather than closely exploring the dogmatic processes that would inhibit it. I think the value of doing this is just that it would give him a considerably wider account of how incremental moral objectivity (or ‘conscientiousness’) can be developed. Even if we don’t get quite as far as much deliberation, we can at least avoid some of the worst prejudicial mistakes. As I have been exploring recently (in Middle Way Philosophy 4: The Integration of Belief), cognitive bias theory gives us lots of useful material for understanding the nature of these prejudicial mistakes, which I argue all include an element of absolutisation.

Johnson also fully acknowledges the point (more fully expounded by psychologists like Jonathan Haidt) that the majority of moral judgements are unreflective, and that a lot of the ‘reasons’ we give for our moral judgements are post hoc rationalisations. Although he tells us a lot about the limitations of our reasoning, however, Haidt tells us little about how it can work well on those occasions where he do use it. Johnson makes this a lot clearer than Haidt does by describing it in terms of deliberation rather than mere deduction from a principle. What neither really engage with, though, is the possibility that our automatic or intuitive moral judgements, too, can be better or worse – not because we can interfere with them on the spot as they occur, but through prior training. Not only is it possible to do moral deliberation better, taking into account more factors, but it is also possible to do it more often, and, even when our judgement is automatic, to make better automatic judgements. This is where the practice of integration comes in, and where in my ‘Middle Way Philosophy’ series I offer an account of practical ways of working to produce integration at the different levels of desire, meaning and belief. It is any mention of this practical implication – even a brief acknowledgement of its existence – that I also find missing in Johnson’s book. Now we know what good deliberation is, how do we get to deliberate better? If a doctor offers a prescription, it seems more responsible if he can at least point out the direction of the pharmacy.

Overall, then, though I am enormously impressed by the content of Johnson’s book, but it is the framing I find unsatisfactory. It is as though a rich, detailed work of art was displayed in the wrong frame – or perhaps even in the wrong gallery. In my view, Johnson has arrived (with a good deal of help from Dewey) at a view of ethics that is practically the Middle Way. However, he is still working in a philosophical tradition that generally regards such a thing as ‘unintelligible’, and that cannot generally even conceive of a third alternative between opposed metaphysical positions. This is directly presented in Johnson’s restrictive definition of ‘non-naturalistic theories’ as locating ‘the source of moral norms and principles in some reality that supposedly transcends the natural world’ (p.15). Well, I thought, I’m a non-naturalist, but I certainly don’t fit into that. The choice is not just one between a metaphysics of ‘the natural world’ and one of transcendent dogmas. Johnson overturns a lot of false dichotomies in this book, and this one is unworthy of him – but largely, I presume, an outcome of the philosophical tradition and culture in which he has worked. In the end what I’d most object to is that he would probably think my position is naturalist, because I reject transcendent dogma and regard experience as our source of information, just as Hindus tend to think Buddhists are really Hindus, forcing one paradigm into another. But, in the terms of Johnson’s own ethics, I think it can be argued that an approach that unnecessarily restricts the options is one with a narrower reflective equilibrium.

Nevertheless, the most important point is that Johnson’s book crucially transcends the limitations of the tradition out of which it has emerged. This is a feature that it shares with the best philosophy from many other traditions. The strength of such a book is also that it may encourage others in the same tradition to open up their assumptions. I wonder if some of those who endorse the book, such as Owen Flanagan, have really taken on board how much it challenges their habitual assumptions – but if they have, then their willingness to endorse it seems to be a sign of progress.

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