Philipp Kitcher on Moral Progress

From June 2019 3rd to 5th, Prof. Philipp Kitcher shared glimpses into his reasearch on moral progress giving the very first „Munich Lecture in Ethics“ at the Munich Center for Ethics (LMU). Despite his tight schedule he gladly agreed to meet me for tea the morning preceding the last of his three lectures. Both being overpunctual, we unhurriedly moved our chairs to the back garden and started chatting about suffering, progress of morality, and the role of philosophers over lemon infused Earl Grey…

Our next issue [third edition, ed.] will be on the topic of suffering. So far, I feel we have thought a lot about individual, existential suffering, and philosophized about its necessity. Would you say that in a social context there is also such thing as systematic suffering that is somewhat natural to human societies?

I don’t think we will ever manage to eradicate suffering because there are so many accidental things that people are unable to control, that affect human lives, like natural disasters. What we can do, is, I think, try to change and reign in and diminish the amount of suffering that we cause ourselves. That is, the way in which we oppress one another. It’s a very good question, and in a sense, I’m concerned with that. I mean, obviously we can do things about certain kinds of natural disasters, respond to them better than we do, take steps to protect people against them – this comes up in my thinking about climate change all the time. We are looking at a future in which natural disasters will become increasingly frequent and in which, unless we start changing our ways quite dramatically, future generations are going to suffer terribly as a result of our negligence. Now you might say that that is just what the world is like, but it seems to me we have a responsibility to take steps to prevent those sorts of things.

So, is it this active reduction of suffering which constitutes moral progress to you?

Well, in our political arrangements right now, given the ways in which our societies are constructed and the kinds of things that we allow and on which we place emphasis, we cause, I believe, a great deal of unnecessary suffering. So, the idea of moral progress isn’t really directed at the thought that we can achieve some perfectly utopian state of paradise. It’s really focussed on the thought that we can do better. I mean, I emphasise this throughout, my idea of moral progress is not ideal in the sense of aiming for the ideal state, or the ideal form of society, or the ideal mode of human life. It’s all about removing obstacles to growth.

I do believe, that, especially concerning the examples you gave in your lecture, many people somehow intuitively believe in this form of moral progress, at least in the cases of slavery and oppression of homosexuality…

… well and the expansion of women rights! Two centuries ago, even 50 years ago – I can remember when I went to Cambridge and studied mathematics there were about 200 of us doing first-year mathematics, and there were only three women. And a year later, there were no women. A pity, really …

… that too, of course! So, while people believe that there is this sort of progress, they’re sometimes hesitant in stating it, because they feel like they unjustifiably present themselves as morally superior. How is this the wrong way to think about moral progress?

I mean this came up in the discussion yesterday. I think it’s quite possible for there to be progressive social change which doesn’t actually require the people who come later to be morally superior. I think it is a good idea if individuals do get morally better. But there are ways in which societies change and in which the people who are at the end would have just participated in the old, bad ways if they had been born in a previous society. But because they’re in a different social situation there’s less oppression as there was before. I mean, it’s not so obvious to me that if you put the majority of contemporary Americans in a time machine, took them back into, say, 1800, that they would be better in their attitudes towards slaves and the people who are actually around them.

Do you think there is a genuine misunderstanding of the morality of previous societies?

No, I don’t think we misunderstand it. I think what we are clearly able to see that there are forms of blindness in the past. I mean, look, I have lived through the revolution in attitudes towards homosexuality. I remember, vividly, the ways in which people used to make incredibly derogatory remarks towards those they thought were gay. This was cruel, I mean, really, deeply cruel. I don’t want to say that I actively participated in that, it always seemed wrong to me, but I don’t think my reaction was strong enough, you know. The vocabulary that people used to describe other people with, it makes me cringe thinking that that was a language that was all around me. I don’t recall the extent to which I participated in using it, but it’s very difficult to avoid absorbing the prejudice and the ideals of the prevalent culture. You were born into a society and you pick up its vocabulary, its way of classifying people. I’m going to say this this afternoon – the ingrained habit we acquire in our youth forms us. We can’t get along without acquiring habits like that, I am thinking because we need some sorts of habits in order to think at all. But some of it can be pretty awful when you look back at it in retrospect.

Now, the point in thinking about moral progress is to try to help see how individuals can grow morally, during their lifetimes, and how societies can, too. Ideally, it would be good if both could.  But I think it’s actually a good idea to recognise all the time your own fallibility. This is one thing I really want to emphasise again and again: it’s not that we are incredibly better. But there are collective achievements that people who come later benefit from and people who come after us will, with luck, do better. Moral progress isn’t a constant: „Oh, everything is getting better!” It’s not like that at all. It goes by fits, and starts, and jerks.

So, something you’ve said just now, but is also rooted in your Deweyan perspective, is that this progress must be something that evolves in action, in habits, not only in thought. What does this pragmatist view add to the discussion?

Well, I think one thing that I try to do is to show the many kinds of habits we need to be sophisticated moral agents. We need all different kinds of habits. You have natural ways of behaving, some of them are perfectly good. Think about some really elementary things, like the way you walk down the street and automatically get out of the way of other people. Maybe habitually, without even thinking about it, you pick up a piece of trash. All of this – you don’t think about it, you just do it. But you also have habits of stopping to think: something that says (snaps his fingers) “Alright, now I need to think about what I am going to do, now I’m going to make a decision.” And when you start deciding, you need further habits, habits of thinking, habits of considering possibilities. All of that is a product of a socialisation and education – which doesn’t just happen in school but happens to you throughout. And while a lot of that is fine, some of it is not fine. Now, the question is not just how you improve your abstract moral beliefs, like „I shouldn’t eat factory-farmed poultry”, „I shouldn’t eat red meat”, etc. It is how we actually get inside this complex of dispositions that you have, and change it for the better: so you stop to think when thinking is more appropriate, and you don’t stop, when that would be kind of a postponed, a dithery Hamlet lifestyle. And when you think you can try to improve your sensitivity to the predicaments of other people – which is at the core of my approach to moral progress – the point is striving for greater sense of moral purpose. So, the sort of thing that I really want to elaborate is the of kinds of things that get absorbed by all people who grow up in a particular society – and the individual thought: How these things work together to take us, with luck, forward.

Do you think that it is somehow inherent to the process that it goes slowly and happens rarely, or can this be traced back to some sort of social inertia, akrasia, complacency…?

I mean, in a certain sense, you can’t change everything at once, so you always need things to stand on while you’re mending your boat. But I think what I find really appalling is the sheer length of time that some changes take. When I think about my children, who are considerably older than you are, they’re really puzzled by things that happened 50 years ago. One, my oldest son, said: “I’m never going to marry until it’s possible for my gay and lesbian friends to marry.” For them, it just seems absurd, as well as hideously awful, that this was long unthinkable. But both, my wife and I, can remember quite vividly this period. You’ve just said it yourself – why did it have to take as long as it did? And that is a relatively fast change, I mean, compared with the ways in which opportunities for women expand, or the case of slavery, actually, cases of social inequality! If I were asked where we should look next, I’d say: “look at the ways in which so many people in contemporary society just don’t have enough” – it really is appalling. I don’t think there is any reason to think that this process has to be as slow.

Now let’s get to a question that I’ve thought about a lot recently, as you do when you study philosophy, I suppose. What is the role of the philosopher in all of this? You have been talking a lot about deliberation, after all, but also about how we should be careful to claim “moral expertise”…

I actually think philosophy has a very important role in this. In some way, it can be an important institution in this kind of change, because I think a self-consciously self-critical society needs people to go away and think hard about social issues – listen up for the voices of the oppressed, all the time. I think this has to be something that is constantly worked over, and I think also that philosophers can actually can play a strong role in bringing the public attention to particular places. I think Peter Singer did this with Famine, Affluence and Morality – and he did it again with Animal Liberation – I can’t remember which one came first. In both those cases, he would put it, he sort of told us the moral truth. But no, from my point of view, what Singer did was start a process of social discussion, and I think that’s part of a philosopher’s role. And that requires philosophers to think in a very broad way about the patterns of human living at their time, and to try to understand how at a given moment of time society and totality of knowledge fit together. Where the places are, in which particular institutions or clashes of moral institutions can find new modes.

I think many of the economic institutions of our societies are putting tremendous pressure on the lives of many individuals, and they`re getting in the way of other kinds of relatively healthy ventures. They’re getting in the way of education, they’re getting in the way of the development of technology, they’re getting in the way of the procreation of the environment, of the ways in which our research into the natural world goes forward. All of these things, I think, need to be brought to public attention and then there needs to be this kind of institutionalised collective method of going forward, which can itself be facilitated by philosophers. So, I believe, philosophers play a very important role in public conversation. Not by telling people what to do, but by saying things like „Have you thought of this this way?”, or „Have you compared this what you’re saying here with what you might want to say about this other, different matter?” I don’t think of collective deliberation as being something that can’t be aided and enriched and guided by the kinds of skills that philosophers can bring along. It’s the idea of philosophers that guiding has the last word on particular normative matters that strikes me as strictly wrong.

But this does presuppose that academic philosophers possess this kind of sensitivity you’ve described before. Would you say that this is the case or do you see a problem in the way in which academia works today? Is there advice you would give to future philosophers?

Yeah, I do, actually, I do. This is a very good question. I think philosophers need to be far more concerned with the state of life as it’s lived around them and far less concerned with, you know, bashing away at what they think to be the eternal questions. The eternal questions, about how you should live, and so on, come up in different forms in different times. I mean, if you’d only spent time thinking about the versions of them, rather than their appropriate order… I think that a lot of philosophy today is degenerating into puzzle solving, into scholastic exercises. I mean, yes, we can learn immensely from the philosophers of the past, I do think the history of philosophy is incredibly important – because there are real insights that possibly haven’t yet been fully absorbed. But it seems to me that we should stop thinking that the point of philosophy is to present the only relevant view about philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Nietzsche – Foucault! – and instead concentrate this into a larger picture. This is something I believe really very, very strongly. It sometimes gets me in trouble with my colleagues that don’t like the fact that I don’t like abstract metaphysics very much (laughs)!

But yes, the role of the philosopher, historically, has, I think, been pretty much as I see it, especially if you look at people like Aristotle and Kant – and Hegel. I mean, the aim of all three of those people is to give a very large picture of how things are at a particular moment in history, and in all three cases, it was incredibly influential on the culture of their time – and I think that’s what society needs. If society doesn’t have that, it is likely to be very blind, because it doesn’t know how to put things together. You have all these individual domains in which reflective people are working hard and are trying to make them better, I suppose, but overall it can be a complete disaster unless you have a picture of how everything is supposed to fit – or could fit – and that seems to me to be the task of philosophy. It’s not that philosophers have some body of knowledge like that of the artist or anthropologist, or electrical engineer, or molecular geneticist. The philosopher sees the connections and sees the ways in which these things interact with one another – and the lives human beings are actually living. 

What a momentous closing statement! Thank you for taking the time!


Interview: Lea Würtenberger. The picture is taken from the cover of Kitcher’s book: Deaths in Venice: The Cases of Gustav von Aschenbach, Columbia University Press, 2016, cover design by Julia Kurshnirsky.

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