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C. A. J. Coady, ed.: What's Wrong with Moralism?

C. A. J. Coady, ed.

What's Wrong with Moralism?

Malden, MA: Blackwell 2006.

Pp. 102.

US$34.95 (paper ISBN-13: 978-1-4051-4948-5).

'Moralizing', 'moralistic' ... no one wants to be accused of moralizing, or of being moralistic. Every introduction to philosophy of law waxes loud on the evils of legal moralism. So moralism must be a Bad Thing, mustn't it? Well, things can't be that simple. Not only do we study the British Moralists (Hume, Shaftesbury, Cudworth, Hutcheson and co.), worthies all, and full of good sense about matters moral; more mundanely, as Benjamin Lovett comments in his contribution to this volume, 'castigating the dinner guest for not washing her hands may be perceived as excessive, but similar treatment of the surgeon who does not wash his [sic] hands before performing an operation would probably be perceived as more than justified' (64). Obviously, 'moralism' in the pejorative sense is more than the mere giving of moral advice, but a specific kind of giving of moral advice. What kind?

This definitional project is one of the two projects that are taken on in this compact volume. Four of the seven essays have this aim, those by Robert Fullinwider, Julia Driver, and Craig Taylor as well as Lovett. The results are mixed. The papers produce quite an array of accounts, not all compatible with each other, and as a consequence the definitional project can hardly be said to be much advanced. Fullinwider parses moralism in the pejorative sense--from now on I will drop the qualifier, as this will be the only sense at issue--as 'judgmentalism', 'the habit of uncharitably and officiously passing judgment on other people' (9). Driver identifies moralism as 'the illicit introduction of moral considerations' (37). The illicitness comes down to excessiveness--being too demanding or perfectionist, or taking non-moral rules to be moral ones. For Taylor, moralism is 'excessive or unreasonable indulgence in moral reflection or judgment' (53). Lovett, a psychologist, tries to find a neutral definition of moralism, and proposes 'the public judgment of others' actions as morally wrong' (62). His motive for doing this is interesting. As a psychologist interested in good mental health, he defends the view that, given the appropriate context and sensibilities, moralism defined as he defines it has a valuable role to play in human flourishing. It is an effective strategy for changing others' behavior, especially when it comes to specific problems of weakness of will and moral ignorance. This is an illuminating paper--the cynic might say because of, rather than in spite of, its not being philosophical.

Driver also tries to position the casuistical method in moral reasoning as the antidote to moralism. I don't find her thesis convincing. I should have thought that axiomatic or principled moral reasoning is fully capable of being unobjectionable, and reasoning from cases fully capable of being obnoxious. Ironically, however, the papers by Fullinwider and Taylor seem to give her some support. They make excellent use of particular cases, Pecksniff from Dickens' Martin Chuzzlewit and Dimmesdale from Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter respectively. The vividness of each portrayal makes moralism come alive in a way that the philosopher's definitions do not. However, the effect is due more, I believe, to the vividness of the portrayal, than to any formal argument by means of cases.

The other three papers pursue the issue of moralism in an altogether different way. They all revolve around the thought that there seems to be a specific kind of inappropriate introduction of moral considerations that is of contemporary political significance--the use of moral reasons to justify political action where such reasoning oversimplifies or marginalizes the importance of the political values at stake. The favored target of course is U.S. President George W. Bush, and to some extent former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, for their discourse of moral evil to justify such disastrous political actions as the invasion of Iraq. Any time, however, one tries to dismiss moral considerations from political decision-making, the spectre is raised of political realism about international relations, the idea--surely also unacceptable --that issues of moral worth have no place in political decision-making at all: political decision-making should be all about national self-interest and nothing else.

Formally speaking, there does seem a structural isomorphism to the two issues of moralism. In each case, we want morality to weigh in the balance just exactly as much as it should weigh, no more and no less. Otherwise, the two kinds of issue are very different. The goal of the conference from which these papers derive was to explore possible commonalities, but it does not seem to me they were found.

That said, the three papers by Tony Coady, Duncan Ivison and Arthur Kuflik on moralism in politics are of some interest. Coady investigates directly the opposition of moralism and realism. He disentangles a number of complaints about political moralism that have some legitimacy: seeing things as moral that aren't, interfering for moral reasons in ways that disrupt autonomy, adherence to ideals that are too lofty and unrealistic, and so forth. However, he argues that realism is not thereby proved to be the only alternative left. 'The right replacement for moralism is not national self-interest, but a suitably nuanced and attentive international morality' (34). This is a very sensible and sensitive paper, the best in the book in my view.

Ivison gives a multicultural twist to the issue of moralism. Moralism is the name to give to one, perhaps even the, prime way of giving offence in a multicultural environment, the intolerance of difference. Ivison is opposed to moralism so understood. The paper, however, is really just a defense of governmental policies that promote multiculturalism as an ideal. The deployment of the term 'moralism' is just a pretext for a familiar kind of liberal political argument, which argument would stand or fall as the case may be regardless of whether its rivals deserved to be called `moralistic'. Arthur Kuflik focuses on legal moralism, the view that everything that is morally required should be legally required. As he rightly points out (86), legal institutions are specialized instruments for the enactment of public policy, and rather blunt ones. It's hardly surprising if they turn out to be unsuitable for the advancement of some moral values. This is a valuable defusing of the usual heated rhetoric about legal moralism. That said, there is little that is new in the paper about the relationship between liberalism as a political theory and legal moralism.

The volume fails, then, in its goals of defining moralism and linking moralism about individual action to moralism in politics. The papers were originally published as an issue of the Journal of Applied Philosophy. There are enough insights in them to justify their being made available to a wider audience in the form of a book, although with so many journals being readily available on-line this justification doesn't have the force it once did. I have to say, though, that while as a Canadian I appreciate the recent pricing parity between the Canadian and the U.S. dollars, $34.95 for 102 pages seems outrageous in either currency.

Roger A. Shiner

University of British Columbia Okanagan
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Author:Shiner, Roger A.
Publication:Philosophy in Review
Date:Feb 1, 2008
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