The meaning of life, the existence of a benign providential order, the political ideals that should guide civilised societies, the extent to which we can control our actions, the justification or criticism of legal and moral practices are some examples of perennial philosophical problems. The widely, but fortunately not universally, accepted philosophical approach to them is to divide a problem into smaller and smaller segments, concentrate on one of the smaller ones, contribute to the increasingly more technical writings on it by drawing finer distinctions, raising and refuting possible objections, and inventing ingenious fictional cases of the what-would-you-do-if sort that may call for the revision of some details of previous contributions. Following this approach is thought by many to be a requirement of professionalism and the failure to follow it is condemned as incompetent.
Nevertheless, the approach is misguided. The perennial problems that concern vitally important matters get lost in the accumulation of exfoliating pedantic details whose relevance, if any, only a handful of specialists working on a minute segment of one of the problems can understand. The countless journal articles and specialist books that adhere to the prevailing approach are incomprehensible to non-specialists and have failed to provide a generally accepted response to any of the basic problems, not even one that specialists could agree on.
The regrettable result is that philosophy has become remote from everyday life. The cultural niche philosophers used to occupy is now filled with charlatans selling salvation, perfervid ideologues, fundamentalist preachers, sensation-seeking journalists, and cynics bent on unmasking all values. The sleep of reason breeds monsters, and they haunt the niche vacated by philosophers. I wrote The Nature of Philosophical Problems to propose an alternative to the misguided approach. What follows is a blunt sketch of what I hope is a better approach to understanding and responding to these perennial philosophical problems.
The source of such problems is that there are historical, moral, personal, political, religious, and scientific modes of understanding and the evaluative judgements that follow from them often conflict. These conflicts are evaluative, not factual. If we could dismiss all except one of the conflicting evaluations as unreasonable, then the conflicts would be resolved. That however we cannot reasonably do because it would be arbitrary. The conflicting evaluations are often logically consistent, take account of the relevant facts, and rely on the long-established standards of particular modes of understanding that make it possible to distinguish between more and less reasonable evaluations and to justify or criticise them.
By way of illustrating how perennial problems arise in our present circumstances, consider disagreements about how we should understand and cope with, say, addiction, AIDS, crime, inequality, or terrorism. We can hardly avoid having some evaluative attitude toward such problems, for they have an immediate effect on how we do and should live. But they can be evaluated from a historical, moral, personal, political, religious, and scientific point of view, their evaluations routinely conflict, and each evaluation may be reasonable, given the standards of the mode of understanding from which it follows.
It makes a great difference to our evaluations whether, for example, we understand terrorism as part of a historical pattern of enraged reactions to supposed injustice; or as atrocity directed against innocent people; or as threats to the physical security of those we care about; or as civil or foreign war waged by non-customary means; or as the self-righteous defence of a supposedly true religion, or as a scientific problem whose solution depends on identifying the causes of terrorism and the conditions in which it occurs. How we respond to terrorism depends on the mode of understanding from which we evaluate it. But from different modes different evaluations and responses follow, and they may be at once reasonable and mutually exclusive.
If we reach this much understanding of what is happening, we come face to face with the deeper problem of having to decide between the relative merits of reasonable but conflicting modes of understanding. Defenders of each typically claim that the mode they favour should have priority over the others. If the evaluations that follow from other modes conflict with their own, then reason requires that our basic guide should be historical understanding, or moral principles, or personal well-being, or protecting the political system of our society, or religious teachings, or scientific explanation. All such claims by defenders of any of the modes of understanding assert what defenders of the priority of other modes deny. They charge each other with dogmatically assuming the very point at issue. They are right to object to what the others are doing but wrong to do the same thing by claiming priority for their own mode of understanding. Such conflicts appear – but only appear – to lead to an impasse.
Conflicting understandings of the significance of terrorism is only an illustration. The same kind of impasse follows from conflicting understandings and responses to addiction, AIDS, crime, inequality, or, indeed, to any one of our serious present problems. Such impasses indicate that we have come up against perennial philosophical problems.
The crux of the case I am making in The Nature of Philosophical Problems is that philosophical problems are perennial because they occur when different modes of understanding provide conflicting evaluations of agreed upon facts. These evaluations may be individually reasonable, and yet collectively incompatible. It is a perennial philosophical problem whether we should give precedence to historical, moral, personal, political, religious, or scientific mode of understanding when they conflict, and we have to decide how we should respond to some serious problem that stands in the way of living as we should. These problems take different forms depending on what the particular facts are whose evaluation is at issue, on what the particular modes of understanding are from which conflicting evaluations follow, and on what the social context is in which the response has to be made.
What to do about addiction, AIDS, crime, inequality, or terrorism are practical problems that lead to philosophical problems, but they are not themselves philosophical. Philosophical problems are perennial partly because they are recurrent and coping with them requires constant application. They are not like the problem of solving an equation, finding the murderer, passing an unpopular law, or understanding a poem or a joke. Once done, such problems are solved and cease to be problematic. But there are other problems that cannot be solved once-and-for-all. Controlling one’s temper, being a responsible citizen, facing evil, maintaining a historical perspective, avoiding self-indulgence, seeking causal explanations are problems to which we have to respond again and again because they are ineliminable parts of life. Such recurrent problems, however, may still not be perennial and philosophical, although, of course, they may be formidably difficult. They become perennial and philosophical when they are caused by reasonable and yet conflicting evaluations that follow from different modes of understanding.
The problems connected with the meaning of life, a providential order, political ideals, control over how we live, and the justification or criticism of legal and moral practices are perennial and philosophical. What they are and how we should respond to them are my central concerns in the book. Here I have space only for a much too brief account of some of them.
Consider first one of the ways in which the scientific and the personal modes of understanding conflict. The scientific mode is committed to the belief that there is a causal explanation of all facts as the effects of specifiable causes and conditions. Our actions, of course, are among these facts. Defenders of the priority of the scientific mode say that we have as yet only an incomplete understanding of the structure and workings of the brain, and that is what prevents us from having a full scientific account of why we act as we do. But when – not if – we have such an account, we will see that it is an illusion to suppose that we have control over our actions. Actions are the effects of antecedent causes, and if we trace the causes far enough back, we realise that the causes of our actions are ultimately beyond our control because they are impersonal and ineluctable forces outside of us. If, however, we aim to understand our own actions in the personal mode, we are compelled to believe that we often have control over them.
If the scientific mode of understanding action is correct, then the personal mode is not, and vice versa. Their conflict is not just a theoretical conundrum. It has crucial practical consequences for our legal and moral practices. Both assume that we are responsible only for actions within our control. But if control is an illusion, then no one is responsible for any action. Our legal and moral practices are defensible only if control is possible. Have we run out of reasons at this point and reached an impasse, or is there a reasonable resolution of this conflict?
I think there is. We can acknowledge that actions are the effects of causes over which we have ultimately no control. We have, for instance, no control over the psychological dispositions with which we start out in life, but we do have some control over whether we strengthen or weaken them. We can learn to be more reflective about our past successes and failures, more attentive to the feelings of others, increase or decrease our involvement in public affairs, become more or less critical of religious teachings, and acquire deeper understanding of the scope of scientific knowledge and of the evaluative dimensions of life in terms of which we make sense of how we live. In these and many other ways, we can increase the limited control we have. And what we are rightly held responsible for are the actions over which we have or could have increased our control.
My proposal, in short, is to back away from regarding control in purely abstract philosophical terms that are meant to apply to everyone regardless of differences in individual psychology and social context, and think of the control particular individuals have or are capable of having in concrete practical terms that go beyond theoretical abstractions and recognise that the possibility of control varies with individuals and social contexts. Part of the reasons why the philosophical problem of control is perennial is that all of us have to struggle individually and recurrently with increasing whatever control is left to us by the causes to which we are subject. The prevailing philosophical approach misguidedly assumes that the problem of control is the same for everyone. That is why the abstractions of those who follow this approach are of no help to individuals who struggle with increasing their control.
Consider another perennial problem: the predicament of morally committed holders of high political office who have to make a choice between meeting their political or moral responsibility in a situation in which they can do only one or the other, and it is up to them which they should violate. Much has been written about this under the name of the problem of dirty hands. It seems that political office holders must often dirty their hands by compromising their genuinely held principles and defending the interests of those who elected them by lying, breaking promises, bribing opponents, and pursuing policies which will harm some innocent people. Their political and moral responsibilities conflict and their circumstances compel them to violate one or the other. How should they and we, who are bystanders, think about this conflict?
The conflict is ultimately between the moral and the political modes of understanding. Those who claim priority for the moral mode do so because they believe that there is some basic moral requirement that should override any consideration that may conflict with it. It may be the common good, duty, individual well-being, God’s will, natural law, conscience, and so forth. Defenders of the priority of the political mode claim that we can meet our moral responsibilities only if the political system of our society makes it possible. A good political system enables us to live morally, a bad one makes it impossible because all available choices are bad.
The defenders of both modes acknowledge the relevance of the other, but disagree about their priority. One claims that the justification of political systems is ultimately moral. The other claims that a stable and law-governed political system is a necessary condition of living morally. Defenders of both modes believe that the primary responsibilities that follow from their own mode should override the conflicting primary responsibilities that follow from the other. The historical and contemporary conflicts between moral and political ideals make it obvious that this problem is recurrent and perennial.
What do followers of the prevailing philosophical approach do about it? They formulate an ideal theory of morality and politics and criticise the ideal theories of others. An ideal theory is one that describes a fictional state of affairs in which all manner of things are well because there is a generally accepted overriding value that governs both morality and politics. It may be autonomy, equality, justice, liberty, prosperity, rights, or something else.
There are several fatal problems with this approach. First, it is of no help to those who actually face the conflict between their moral and political responsibilities to be told that in some ideal circumstances the conflict would not occur. It has often occurred in the past, it is occurring often now, and both political office holders and their critics must struggle with it. No ideal theory could possibly help them because the conflict must be faced in non-ideal circumstances.
Suppose next, what is certainly not the case, that there is an ideal theory generally accepted by those who follow the prevailing approach. They agree that contemporary morality and politics should be reformed so as to conform to the ideal theory. The problem is the force of this “should”. The “should” cannot be based on the ideal theory because that would simply assume what is at issue, namely whether the ideal theory should be accepted. Its defenders need to give some reason why it should be accepted. The reason cannot be that if it were accepted then all conflicts would be resolved in favour of whatever the ideal theory claims the overriding value is, because that would also assume that there actually is such an overriding value, which is precisely what is at issue. It is unreasonable to suppose that any one of autonomy, equality, justice, liberty, prosperity, or rights should always – in all societies, at all times, in the face of all emergencies – override all other moral or political values that conflict with it. The familiar horrors that have been caused by uncompromising followers of ideological or religious ideal theories bear witness to the necessity of giving reasons for ideal theories and why one of their values should override all other values that may conflict with it.
What, then, should we do? Once again, my proposal is to move away from the theoretical abstractions of followers of the prevailing philosophical approach and consider the conflict between moral and political responsibilities in concrete practical terms that pays close attention to the context in which the conflict occurs. What political office holders should do and how bystanders should evaluate what they have done depends on such considerations as how important are the interests of those they are defending. Do they have to do with taxation, vacation time, or licensing fees, or do they affect their physical security, livelihood, or health?
How basic to morality and politics are the responsibilities at stake? How serious is the harm their decisions may cause to innocent people? Could they honestly, without obfuscation, justify to themselves what they are about to do? If in the face of such a conflict they resign their political office, they in fact violate their political responsibility. The reasonable response to such conflicts depends on the individuality of the decision-makers, the context, and the practical circumstances. There can be no reasonable impersonal and universally applicable response to such conflicts. There is a more reasonable response in a particular context for a particular person than any other, but it has been, is, and will remain particular and context-dependent. That is why the conflict between moral principles and political responsibilities is a perennial problem and an unavoidable part of our lives. Liberty and order, equality and prosperity, justice and benevolence, taxation and the consent of the governed, the pursuit of excellence and democracy, individual well-being and the common good will conflict. No ideal theory could avoid these and other similar conflicts between the moral and political values of a civilised society.
I am running out of the allotted space, so I can only indicate even more briefly than before three other conflicts that lead to perennial problems. First, the majority of defenders of the historical and moral modes provide conflicting understandings of the justification of values. According to the historical mode, the values of a society are conditional on the prevailing circumstances and the justification of values changes as the circumstances do. According to the moral mode, there are some values necessary for human well-being in all circumstances. Second, a central assumption of the religious mode is that there is a benign providential order. Defenders of the scientific mode share the assumption that there is order in nature, but they see no reason to believe that the order is either providential or benign. Third, most defenders of the personal mode think of the meaning of life as something each of us must, in one way or another, give to our life. Defenders of the religious mode of understanding think that the meaning of our life is not what we give to it but what we may find if we look honestly and hard. The first think that the meaning of our life is up to us, the second deny it. There are, of course, also numerous other conflicts between modes of understanding.
A large part of recorded human history is about the disputes in different societies, ages, and circumstances about the meaning of life, the order in the world, the right political ideals, the control we can have over our actions, and the justification or criticism of legal and moral practices. These perennial problems are unavoidable for beings like us. The time-honoured task of philosophers is to propose ways of understanding and responding to these problems. This can be done more or less reasonably, but human beings throughout history have wanted it done, and that is what philosophers have been dedicated to doing.
The prevailing philosophical approach is misguided because it does it badly. But it is possible to do it better by recognising that philosophical theories that abstract from the forever changing conditions of life misunderstand perennial problems and consequently cannot respond to them reasonably. The better approach I have been proposing is to understand that perennial problems always occur in concrete and practical terms and reasonable ways of responding to them is unavoidably conditional and context-dependent. Perennial problems are by-products of our modes of understanding and as long as we persevere in trying to understand the changing conditions in which we live, our modes of understanding will conflict and perennial problems will occur. That is part of the human condition, whether or not we like it.