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I came to discover only late that, thanks to the exertions of Micah Watson in his “A Tale of Two Philosophers,” published here last Friday, the readers of First Things were given an account of this interesting exchange I had with my young friend, Matthew O’Brien, taking up the vocation of philosophy. What seemed to rage, though, in the comments attached to the piece were rather emphatic comments, some in criticism and some in support, by people who evidently had no idea of what I had actually said in those pieces, written in that exchange with O’Brien.

Micah Watson was animated, as ever, by the best intentions, but as a result of his efforts the landscape seems to be filled now with people who are ready to declaim with high passion over the defects in my argument, while being serenely detached from any knowledge of what exactly I did say in those essays. Hence my reason now for writing in turn.

Watson was pondering, with people listening, just why two friends who shared so much, should be arguing over the very grounds of their moral judgments. He noted that O’Brien was recoiling from my position because of what he regarded as my over-reliance on the discipline of “reason,” with its anchoring ground in the “law of contradiction.”

But it was far from clear as to what O’Brien was offering as an alternative. Watson noted that I had sought to draw O’Brien in by inviting him to show how he would arrive at a judgment on two notable matters: the case against racial discrimination and the wrong of withdrawing medical care from a child with Down’s syndrome. The force and reason of the move he caught in this way:

[I]n 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.

Watson’s puzzlement then came in trying to figure out O’Brien’s move as he steered around this challenge. As he put it with some delicacy, “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.’” The main embarrassment, of course, is that that is what he did say.

O’Brien had observed, quite rightly, that people are drawn to moral understanding in many other ways than through argument; they may be drawn by literature and drama and experience. But that doesn’t answer the question of those standards of judgment we use as we draw from literature and experience the lessons that are rightful or wrongful. Watson thought that he could not have been contesting the centrality of reason, that he was merely offering then a plea for the way in which moral teaching is conveyed. In Watson’s construal,

One cannot make sense of morality . . . . one cannot fully grasp, and apply, those logical truths without a sound moral education . . . . [T]hose 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.

Watson wrote me that he was trying to “make sense” of this amiable but spirited argument between two friends, but his effort begs the question: We could hardly shape a “sound moral education” unless we understand in the first place the things that a sound judgment would hold as good or bad, just or unjust. O’Brien could not have been conceding the centrality of practical reason and yet contesting fiercely over the question of whether it is conveyed best through philosophic essays, children’s stories, or novels. Such differences could hardly have produced such heat.

Watson sought to help readers steer around the poles in the argument, but I don’t think he managed to convey to new readers just what those poles were or where they were to be found. For he did not exactly offer, in the space he had, a luminous account of the argument I had been offering. And so I hope you will permit me to distill the essence of where the matter stood when the argument, for the moment at least, came to its close:

My position, as familiar as it is simple, is that behind all of our practical moral judgments, we will have principles of judgment, or reasons for what we are doing. If indeed the currency is “reason,” then reasons find their firmest grounds in the “laws of reason,” anchored in the “law of contradiction.” That becomes the touchstone in gauging truth or falsity. That is where our judgments do find their ultimate ground”if in fact it makes a difference for us that the judgments we are offering, the answers we are seeking, happen to be true or false.

But if Matthew O’Brien, or other people, offer other sources of moral instruction, cut off from reason, then they should be obliged to tell us the ground on which they claim to know that the moral lessons they are gleaning in this way happen to be true. That is something that he never managed to vouchsafe after three sessions in the exchange, but we are likely to hear from him later, for he is destined to a distinguished career, and he will have many more years in which to ponder the matter.

Hadley Arkes, a long-time member of First Things editorial and advisory board, is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College and author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law (Cambridge). His interlocutor, Matthew O’Brien, is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin and a lecturer at Rutgers University.


Micah Watson’s A Tale of Two Philosophers
Here is the original exchange:
Matthew O’Brien’s Constitutional Illusions , a review of Hadley Arkes’ book Constitutional Illusions and Anchoring Truths , which began the exchange.
Hadley Arkes’ The Particular Appeal of Universal Principles , his reply to O’Brien.
Matthew O’Brien’s The Ambitions of Natural Law Ethics: A Reply to Arkes .
Hadley Arkes’ Kant the Bogeyman .
Matthew O’Brien’s Moral Principles and Human Happiness .
Hadley Arkes and Matthew O’Brien’s The Grounds of Our Judgments , the wrap up of their exchange.

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