Imagine taking the subway in any great world city, London, Amsterdam, San Paolo, Los Angeles, Sydney, Berlin, or New York, where one simply takes in the human fauna, where one listens and looks in a patient non-judgemental pose. I’ll use New York City, the city I know best. One will hear unfamiliar and incomprehensible languages from among the 200 languages that are spoken by its people — Korean, Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Arabic, Somali, French, Spanish, and Hindi. One will see people in unusual outfits with unusual hairdos – Buddhist monks and nuns, Hasidic Jews, Muslims of various stripes, Sikhs, Amish and Mennonite families, Hindu women with dots on their foreheads, and so on.
Somehow despite the diversity of appearances and the heterogeneity of languages, things seem to work at least to the point that all these mutually strange denizens of the underground negotiate subway transport successfully. They go to school and to work, they have friends and families, they shop and pay taxes, and they abide the law.
Nonetheless, the linguistic differences, and the differences in hairdos and outfits bespeak differences in underlying philosophies. Many of the people one observes and lives among in multicultural cities are not members of any Abrahamic religion, nor are they even children of the secular enlightenment that European Christianity spawned. They are Confucians, Buddhists, Daoists, Jains, Hindus, and god knows what else.
One question one might ask oneself – now moving to a more judgemental pose — is whether the diversity one observes is superficial or deep. Does it constitute a cacophony or polyphony, a babble or a beautiful human symphony that emerges without a conductor or an antecedent script or score?
This is a matter about which people of good faith disagree, as one sees from heated disputes about immigration that dominate the news in Europe and America. Some of the issues debated are practical: How does a nation state accommodate large numbers of immigrants? How does it do so while maintaining security? Others are philosophical: what are the duties of the citizens of nation states with respect to those wishing to enter? And more centrally to the present topic: To what degree does a harmonious, well-ordered society depend upon or require, a shared philosophy of life?
In Europe, much discussion about this topic centres on whether, for example, a Christian society or, what is different, a secular liberal society spawned by Christianity or Judeo-Christianity can tolerate an allegedly alien Muslim form of life without itself coming undone. The perceived threat might be real – it depends on whether nation states have things like souls and whether these need to be very harmonious. But the really interesting thing is that the perceived threat that dominates European discussion comes from inside a closely related family of philosophies, namely, from philosophical differences among the metaphysical and theological traditions of Abraham. And on good days of the week Yahweh is God is Allah, and this self-same source grounds a common morality.
If Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions can be threats to each other and engender horrible conflict – and they obviously can – there are in fact other more alien forms of life in our midst that do not share anything like the common philosophical roots that link Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the secular enlightenment. There are, for example, three billion people in Indian and China alone and they are not historically people of the same books as we, the people of the North Atlantic, are. The same is true of the peoples of the global south prior to colonialism, and for whom these indigenous philosophies still live in their hearts and minds.
Footnotes to Plato?
Why does this matter to philosophy as a discipline or field of study? One reason is this: Alfred North Whitehead famously said that the safest generalisation to make about Western philosophy is that it is “a series of footnotes to Plato”. During the times in which the peoples of the North Atlantic were mostly European, their scholars could reliably prepare them for a common life by reading Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas. It wasn’t only that the Greeks — more Aristotle than Plato, but that is a separate issue — were touchstones for the great Christian philosophers; they were also touchstones for great Jewish and Muslim philosophers, Maimonides and Avicenna, for example. Even the great majority of people who have never actually read a word of Plato or Aristotle speak as if they did, in a metaphysical surround of truth, goodness, and beauty, and in a language of moral and political virtues that prioritise justice.
But that is no longer true. We are not all people of the same books, the same philosophical texts. Philosophically we do not all come from lineages that begin with Plato. We live together with people whose philosophies of life are in the lineages of Confucius and Buddha and in lineages of unnamed Aztec and Inca sources, lineages that still show the indelible marks of well-worked out indigenous philosophies of life of the global south.
Teach the Children Well
One could decide in such a situation to continue to create curricula and teach the footnotes to Plato lineage as the philosophical touchstone for our common life on the grounds that a harmonious society depends on assimilation into a common shared philosophy and this is ours. I recommend a different approach. Let’s take the opportunity afforded by multicultures to explore the different philosophical lineages that are actually embodied by different people with the goals of mutual comprehension, tolerance, and appreciation, while at the same time being open to learning from alternative traditions wisdom that might be useful to us, even good for us. The inquiry should address such questions of whether and where there are genuine agreements and disagreements about virtue and vice, the nature of persons, and the nature of the good life. There are several reasons why this approach seems like a good idea, especially in lively areas like ethics, moral psychology, and social and political philosophy.
First, as I have been insisting, we live increasingly in multicultural, multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan worlds. Depending on one’s perspective these worlds are grand experiments in tolerant living, worlds in which prejudices break down; or they are fractured, wary, tense ethnic and religious cohousing projects; or they are melting pots where differences are thinned out and homogenised over time; or they are admixtures or collages of the best values, norms, and practices, the sociomoral equivalent of fine fusion cuisine or excellent world music that creates flavours or sounds from multiple fine sources; or on the other side, a blend of the worst of incommensurable value systems and practices, clunky and degenerate. It is good for ethicists to know more about people who are not from the North Atlantic (or its outposts). Or even if they are from the North Atlantic are not from elites or are not from “around here”. It matters how members of original displaced communities or people who were brought here or came here as chattel slaves or indentured workers or political refugees or for economic opportunity, have thought about virtues, values, moral psychology, normative ethics, and good human lives.
Second, most work in empirical moral psychology has been done on WEIRD people (Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic) and there is every reason to think WEIRD people are unrepresentative, possibly the most unrepresentative group imaginable, less representative than our ancestors when the ice melted at the end of the Pleistocene. It may be the assumptions we make about the nature of persons and the human good in the footnotes to Plato lineage and which seem secure are in fact parochial and worth re-examining.
Third, the methods of genetics, empirical psychology, evolutionary psychology, and neuroscience get lots of attention recently in moral psychology, as if they can ground an entirely secular and neutral form of common life. But it would be a mistake to think that these sciences are superior to the wisdom of the ages in gaining deep knowledge about human nature and the human good or that they are robust enough to provide a picture of a good life. The reasons are principled: First, questions about human nature and the human good require sensitive attention to phenotypic traits, such as cooperation, fairness, compassion, altruism, peace, harmony, and flourishing and how these covary with each other across cultured ecologies. Great thinkers like Plato and Aristotle and like Confucius, Mozi, Mencius, Zhuangzi, Xunzi, Buddha, and Śāntideva, were sensitive observers of humans in their own times. They make empirical claims, most are testable; some have been tested. They also make normative claims about what one ought to be like and about what is good, good for individuals and good for groups. Some of these normative claims are similar to ethical claims made in North Atlantic traditions, some are not.
A further reason why ethicists and social philosophers need to beware excessive enthusiasm for genetics and neuroscience is because the human good is not a matter of what is just in the genes or in the head. Many of the great goods in human life are goods that are internal to particular practices and traditions, and emerge in particular relations among particular people at a particular place and time. Ethics is part of human ecology and thus the sciences and disciplines relevant to ethics are not only sciences like evolutionary psychology, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience, but also cultural history, sociology, and anthropology. Reading great philosophers from other traditions helps bring into view or helps keep in view the important fact that the particularities of different moral traditions matter. It also makes us aware of the space of possibility, and allows us to imaginatively envision how we might be if everything including ourselves were different, a bit different, or very different.
Varieties of Moral Possibility
In a 2013 volume celebrating his life and work on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, Alasdair MacIntyre offers this assessment of the overall state of moral philosophy in the twentieth century.
“For on the view that I have found myself compelled to take, contemporary academic moral philosophy turns out to be seriously defective as a form of rational inquiry. How so? First, the study of moral philosophy has become divorced from the study of morality or rather of moralities and by so doing has distanced itself from practice. We do not expect serious work in the philosophy of physics from students who have never studied physics or on the philosophy of law from students who have never studied law. But there is not even a hint of a suggestion that courses in social and cultural anthropology and in certain areas of sociology and psychology should be a prerequisite for graduate work in moral philosophy. Yet without such courses no adequate sense of the varieties of moral possibility can be acquired. One remains imprisoned by one’s upbringing.”
MacIntyre’s lament is that traditional academic ethics is defective in how it conceives the nature of lived moralities, and that partly for this reason, is not up to the task of assisting in the practical, existentially weighty project of moral and social critique and improvement. Traditional academic moral philosophy often operates with an antiseptic and ecologically unrealistic conception of the participants in moral life. There is little sense inside much of moral philosophy that the “I”s and “thou”s, the “we”s and “they”s, the “us”s and “them”s engaged in moral commerce are occupants of worlds defined in part by gender and race, poverty and war, degradation, subjugation, and hierarchy, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Rwanda, Somalia, the Nanking massacre, inflation, deflation, rape, cocaine, refugees, childhood leukaemia, apartheid, caste, love gained, love lost, birth, and death, as well as the long and weighty force fields of particular histories, languages, and traditions. We are born into worlds among Confucians or Methodists or Buddhists or Catholics, as Navaho, Shuar, Piraha, Hopi, Aztec, Ashanti, Akan, Massai, Dinka, Nuer, Yoruba, Sunni, or Shia, and we learn to speak, think, and judge, at least at first, inside these worlds.
How the latter facts or features of traditions, cultures, subcultures, and individuals ought to matter requires descriptive multidisciplinary analyses plus all sorts of critical fine-grained normative analyses, which requires exploration of the possibility space, both internal to the tradition and external to it. What resources are there internal to cultures that practice genital mutilation to see through them, to work around them, to end them? What resources do increasingly oligarchic and nonegalitarian states like the USA have internal to themselves to become more democratic and egalitarian? And if there are no internal resources for sociomoral change inside a tradition, how do novel moral ideas or, what is different, external sources gain a footing — discovery, innovation, commerce, immigration, intermarriage, or revolution? Overall, it makes no sense in such a situation to abide a division of intellectual labour where the cultural psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists provide descriptive grist for the philosopher’s normative mill. For all inquirers the project of understanding and critique requires descriptive and explanatory meticulousness, as well as a host of normative tools that can be used by anyone.
On Being Imprisoned by One’s Upbringing
So I have proposed a more expansive approach to philosophy that involves engaging alternative traditions that animate the lives of others; not merely others who live in distant places or lived in distant times – although that is good too — but others who are different, but with whom one is living now, already. One reason is mutual comprehension, to make us legible to each other. Another deeper and more important reason is the one MacIntyre gives at the end of the quoted passage. Unless we are aware of the “varieties of moral possibility” we are in danger of being “imprisoned by [our] upbringing.”
Opening up the possibility space, entertaining as live possibilities different conceptions of good character, different economies of emotional regulation, and alternative conceptions of the good life can be exhilarating, but it can also be confidence undermining. We might think that we, our people, the one’s who constitute our lineage, discovered what is really valuable, enumerated and ordered the virtues properly, and settled questions of what really matters. Or, we might think those other strange looking souls on the subway might know some things that we don’t, and approach the philosophies that animate how they live with openness and humility. Modern multicultures afford us this opportunity. One mistake would be to think that the entire burden of teaching cross-cultural philosophy must fall on philosophy departments. It doesn’t and it won’t. Philosophy is rearguard relative to all the other humanities and social sciences – to literature, religious studies, history, sociology, anthropology, cultural studies, and politics — in teaching about multiple philosophical lineages. So I am an optimist about cross-cultural philosophy getting done in the schools and universities of the future. I am a pessimist about philosophy – old and cold and settled in its ways – being at the centre of this important and thrilling cultural adventure.