Steve Porter

Comments About The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge, Part 2

Celebration of the Life of Dallas Willard, University of Southern California, School of Philosophy (October 4, 2013)

As Professor Ten Elshof made clear, for Dallas, the “disappearance of moral knowledge” is a social fact. One manifestation of this fact is that in the university setting we cannot currently teach moral knowledge in the same sort of way that we can teach knowledge of English grammar or mathematics. Dallas would often utilize the illustration that if a professor marked a student down on an ethics exam for claiming that racist attitudes, for instance, were morally praiseworthy, that student could appeal the professor’s grade and would eventually prevail. While there are, of course, many persons and institutions that make moral claims about which behaviors are acceptable and which are not, Dallas holds that as a social fact we do not present those claims as knowledge: that is, as “the way things are on an appropriate basis of thought and experience, open and accessible to anyone.” As Professor Ten Elshof briefly summarized in the case of G. E. Moore, Dallas believed this was at least partly due to the failure of late 19th and 20th century moral philosophy to ground moral knowledge in a publicly certifiable way. In the first six chapters of the book, Dallas documents this failure through examining some of the dominant currents in late 19th and 20th century ethics and in the final chapter Dallas endeavors to make steps to address this failure.

In the final chapter, Dallas maintains that there are at least two “overarching traits” characteristic of the moral theorists he covers that “would pretty surely guarantee failure to develop an understanding of moral distinctions capable of providing a moral instruction and guidance viable as public, teachable knowledge.”

The first trait is the failure “to identify one subject as the subject of moral theory” and to remain focused on it as a stable subject matter. Dallas has us wonder along with him how human progress in understanding ethics could be made with a constantly shifting object of study: the right, the good, the soul, dispositions, obligation, consequence, law, desire, emotion, and so on.  Dallas writes, “Failure to give a fairly precise and constant answer to this question leaves the door open for diverse topics to enter the arena of ethical theorizing without any clear sense of how issues are joined and resolved, or not. Ethical theory sprawls over a huge range of, admittedly, important and interesting topics, and achieves a certain grandiosity for itself. But precisely that prevents the emergence from it of solid but modest knowledge, which might serve as a framework for a shared understanding of good and evil, duty, and right and wrong for ordinary persons in ordinary life.”

The second trait Dallas elucidates is a “persistent tendency to force moral knowledge into a model or form of knowledge that it simply cannot assume.” Here Dallas has in mind a deductive or “Euclidean” form of knowledge (think Spinoza, for example) as well as the tendency to approach moral distinctions from a purely empirical basis. Dallas argues that the actual shape of moral knowledge is such that forcing it into these types of epistemic forms makes its emergence as knowledge impossible.

In response to these two tendencies, Dallas’s positive proposal for grounding the objectivity of moral knowledge coalesces with his career-long appreciation for the phenomenological method. Dallas argues that it is in our “conceptually unmediated experience of the needs of others, and of the demands that those needs impose upon us, that we come to know of a [moral] reality independent of ourselves.” Dallas calls upon Emmanuel Levinas, amongst others, as a helpful interlocutor in this endeavor. In particular, Dallas appropriates Levinas’s analysis of the face of the other as the place of moral encounter in which we become aware in first-person experience of what we ought to do and who we ought to be. These immediate moral demands, according to Dallas, refocus attention on the inner structure of the moral agent and thereby provide the basis for moral reflection and ethical theorizing.

So, on Dallas’s view, reflection on moral experience with the other enables us to make the fundamental moral distinction between a good and a bad person or will. Once this distinction is made, a careful examination of clear cases of good persons will yield the following true description: good persons are “intent upon advancing the various goods of human life with which they are effectively in contact, in a manner that respects their relative degrees of importance and the extent to which the actions of the person in question can actually promote the existence and maintenance of those goods.” In other words, the good will and the good person is manifested in active caring for particular goods with which he or she is in effective contact.

While there is not sufficient time to develop the details of Dallas’s positive account of moral knowledge, I do think it is important to remember that in this book Dallas is calling us to something. Dallas believed that there is a moral reality that we live in constantly, to which we can direct our attention, and to which we can come to be in better or worse alignment. To discover this fact is not, of course, a threat to our well-being, but is rather to discover what it is to live well as a good person. It seems to me that Dallas had discovered that. From my limited experience of him, he was a good person and he lived a good life. Dallas was intent upon advancing the various goods of human life that he was in a position to do something about. Whether you were a student, a colleague, a friend, or one of his family members, I imagine that was your experience of him too. If so, I think the argument for Dallas’s position on moral knowledge that is most fitting to reflect upon today is the argument from our memory of his life. Dallas lived a good life and he was a clear case of a good person, and no doubt the moral theory he was articulating in his final years and months was the theoretical foundation on which he himself lived.

DWillard.org is co-sponsored by the family of Dallas Willard, Dallas Willard Ministries, and FiveStone.