An interesting and significant online discussion between Hadley Arkes and Matthew O’Brien on the content of moral judgment has recently played out in the pages of Public Discourse. What made this exchange so remarkable was that O’Brien and Arkes are in close agreement on the great moral issues of our day—both recognize the evils of abortion and racism, for example. Despite this agreement, they sharply disagree on just how we can reason morally. Given the importance of these questions, it may be worth trying to defuse, or at least clarify, some of the disagreement.
Let’s start by clarifying four areas of agreement and disagreement that we see in the exchange. The first subject garners the most agreement and is thus the least controversial: the content of morality. Both Arkes and O’Brien agree, for instance, that racist actions are immoral and taking the life of a Down-syndrome child would be profoundly wrong.
Holding that a particular action is wrong, however, is quite a different thing than giving an account of how and why it is wrong. The Orthodox rabbi will agree with the PETA activist that eating pork is wrong, but their accounts of why this is the case will be rather different. We might think of this second area as a sort of architecture or structure of morality.
We find a third distinct area of disagreement with regard to the epistemic question of how we come to know the moral law and through what sort of inquiry. Finally, and closely related, the fourth area concerns how those who hold to a natural law understanding can best present their case for human flourishing and the rights and wrong, virtues and vices, that will correspond with such a vision.
O’Brien’s persistent theme is that Arkes relies on an overly abstract rationalism that cannot explain why certain actions are immoral—say racism—or how an understanding of morality rightly fits into an overarching scheme of virtue and human flourishing. Arkes relies on demonstrating that human beings who commit particular wrongs necessarily fall into logical contradiction, O’Brien charges, and this is both problematic with regard to how morality actually functions and because logic cannot capture how it is we come to apprehend moral truths.
Misunderstanding moral truth is due to a lack of perception rather than faulty deduction, and so a reliance on logic will not only misconstrue the true nature of morality but hamper attempts to affect moral change in a pluralistic society. Arkes’ particular use of logic is flawed, O’Brien charges, and the use of logic generally is insufficient. In short, while Arkes gets the “what” of morality right, he does not properly explain why something is immoral, how we come to know it and from whence it comes, and how to present it to the larger public.
Arkes’ response consists of clarifying his appropriation of Kant and denying O’Brien’s charge of over-rationalization. More importantly, Arkes is not content to play defense but returns the question to O’Brien. If my conception does not adequately account for the moral truths we both agree on, Arkes asks, then surely O’Brien can draw on his preferred critics to present a better account of the wrong of racism or infanticide of the disabled.
Arkes’ move is shrewd, as it puts O’Brien’s two primary criticisms at odds with each other. For in asking O’Brien to put forth his own account of how to understand and present morality, Arkes forces O’Brien to articulate and defend a moral conception that must withstand the same sort of critique that O’Brien applied to Arkes. Yet criticizing the solvency of Arkes’ moral philosophy while proposing a snapshot of his own preferred approach is to engage Arkes in the arena of rational argumentation, the very sort of approach to morality that O’Brien emphasizes is inadequate to the task.
We see this tension in the following example. To the charge of an over-reliance on Kant, Arkes responds that he need not endorse Kant’s entire project but finds the following ideas well-expressed in Kant’s work: we cannot derive moral principles from merely observing human behavior, because human behavior is variegated; we should not judge the moral character of any one individual because he or she shares a non-moral characteristic with a larger group; and finally that moral judgment requires something more than mere sentiment or feelings.
One may agree or disagree in whole or in part with these ideas about moral reasoning, but showing how they are inadequate and proposing what will work better seems to require a work of rational argumentation, not merely exposing a matter of faulty perception. If O’Brien is correct that logical argument cannot successfully explicate the true nature of morality, then he will find himself having to use other tools to counter Arkes’ conception.
This may explain why in the concluding exchange O’Brien quietly drops his philosophical criticism of Arkes’ particular approach and emphasizes instead more general concerns about the very possibility of getting at the truth in a philosophically comprehensive way. It is a difference between O’Brien claiming that Arkes’ argument against racism cannot be logically demonstrated, and O’Brien claiming that Arkes’ argument will not be accepted as logically demonstrated.
O’Brien’s alternative approach to understanding morality does not reject logic per se, but rather the privileging of logic as the most important source, and means, of apprehending moral truth. We see this in how O’Brien sketches out his alternative approach to demonstrating the wrongness of racism:
We demonstrate this by carefully reflecting upon our personal and social history, the consequences of racism and neglect, the nature of human animality, and the unspoken ways in which every one of us is dependent upon other people for our happiness. By sifting through this data we can produce an argument, which will ring true for the person who has cultivated the right sensibility, for the proposition that all human beings have an inalienable moral dignity.
It is clear from this passage that logic has a role to play, in that there must be something that connects the conclusions we draw from our careful reflection about history, human animality, and our dependence on others to the moral conclusions we arrive at after our sifting through the data. It is hard to think that O’Brien means strictly what he says in concluding his penultimate contribution that “the principles are to be found in experience and not the logic of practical reason.” To press his analogy, with what are we sifting with if not ideas we already have about what counts as human flourishing? Whereas Arkes thinks that we need the logic of morals to distinguish between the happiness we might observe in a tribe of incestuous sadists and the happiness of a chaste and virtuous monastic order, O’Brien’s closing sentence in the quoted paragraph above indicates that only a proper education makes possible a correct perception.
Perhaps this last point about education is a hint that the disagreement between O’Brien and Arkes need not be understood as an either/or difference. One cannot make sense of morality without grasping its logical presuppositions, and one cannot fully grasp, and apply, those logical truths without a sound moral education. For part of Aristotle’s great insight into moral education is that those who know the proper excellence of a human being will instill that understanding into the young long before they have the rational capacity to understand it.
The novice pianist may not understand and even resent the insistence of the master that she sit up straight, hold her wrists above the keys, and practice the scales over and over again. Yet by the time she does understand their importance, the habits seem entirely natural. In the same way, parents force their children to behave in certain ways long before they can reason well about them. We learn early on that it is wrong to treat friends at school poorly because their skin color is different. Only later will we be properly prepared to understand and accept a rational explanation of why racism is wrong.
The corollary of this insight is that those who have been poorly raised not only lack the character needed to act virtuously, they lack the understanding that would allow them to respond to logical argument about the human good. This is the strongest component of O’Brien’s critique. Given a pluralistic society in which many—perhaps most—citizens are raised without a proper moral education, the efficacy of an approach that relies solely on the “logic of morals” will be limited. Hence O’Brien’s endorsement of alternative means of moral education: the experience of blacks and white serving together in the military, the shared enthusiasm for sports, and the power of a well-told story. There’s a reason, O’Brien may well have noted, that history’s most influential moral teacher relied on parables rather than treatises.
Arkes, a rather effective teacher himself, would not disagree. For what is it that a parable or winsome anecdote helps us see if not an underlying truth about our nature as moral beings? Moreover, Arkes might continue, the logic of morals can be part of that moral education that will produce people with the right moral sensibility. Aristotle is helpful in at least this regard. We should heed O’Brien’s caution about logic’s potential to persuade those with a deficient moral education. But we should aspire to educate such that we can engage in the sort of moral reasoning that both Arkes and O’Brien put on display in this exchange.
Micah Watson is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Affairs at the James Madison Program at Princeton University, and Director of the Center for Politics & Religion at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.
Matthew O’Brien’s review of Hadley Arkes’ Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law can be found here. Hadley Arkes’ reply to O’Brien’s review can be found here. The rest of the exchange can be found here, here, and here.