The End of Moral Philosophy in America

Monday, April 6, 2009

The common sense morality was the perfect prescription for a secular republic in which both Thomas Jefferson and John Witherspoon had to live together. It yielded moral laws without compelling people to embrace protestant Christian theology, but it allowed protestant Christians to slip the fundamentals of Christian morality into public affairs without having to name Edwarsean revivalism. Thus, it allowed a kind of low-level evangelism to operate on the republican masses.

The principle of analogy, in fact, worked so well, that sometimes it was hard to carry away with it. Through the intuitive response of a moral consciousness, Mark Hopkins rediscovered an intricate three-fold class of duties for which human beings had been created, including a moral obligation to obtain air, exercise, sleep and clothing. But also he discovered a right to property, which is graciously bestowed upon mankind for the purpose of stimulating them into action.

Union College students in the 1850’s found, through Lawrence Hickok, that they had natural and self-evident moral obligations to cleanliness of dress and person. Even more than that, Hickok believed that this common moral sense would teach people directly that they should privatize the post office, because State interference is oppressive to the public freedom. Like all tyranny, it should at once be abated.

All of these intuitive moral obligations climaxes in what Francis Wayland called the general obligation to the supreme love to God. This, for Wayland, led point by point to the cultivation of a devotional spirit, to prayer and even to good Sabbath keeping. As Wayland happily concluded: “as everything which we can know teaches a lesson concerning God, if we connect that lesson with everything which we learn, everything would be resplendent with the attributes of the deity”.

On the other hand, the fact that morality was supposed to be as real as physics did not mean that everyone naturally obeyed those moral laws the way inanimate nature obeys the laws of physics. After all, people had free will. They could choose to trump those laws if they wished. “Whether we can or cannot answer arguments against liberty, remarked the Presbyterian Archibald Alexander, we know that we are free”. Sort of an odd statement for a Presbyterian Calvinist to make. “Though we may not be able to understand or explain with precision this freedom, yet this ignorance of our nature should not disturb our minds.”

Free will was not the only culprit that kept people from realizing their moral duties. A consistent pattern of unwise choices would result in a permanent moral warpage of the soul.

The Status of the Moral Sense in the Human Mind

It is worth noting at this point that the 19th century moral philosophers were still talking about the human mind as a collection of faculties. Whatever else the Enlightenment had succeeded in questioning, it had not shaken people loose from the notion that the mind was an arrangement of mental departments. For the moral philosophers, the old warfare for supremacy between will and intellect had not ended. If anything, the Enlightenment’s suspicion of the way intellect could be perverted into wasting its energies on the creation of vast pyramids of theological nonsense, gave a new respectability to the legitimacy of the emotions or passions.

In Thomas Reid’s version of the Scottish common sense thinking, the mind’s faculties could be divided into three sections: the mechanical faculties, the animal faculties and the rational faculties, which were composed of the conscience and the intellect.

David Hume had dismissed morality as an animal faculty, just an emotion. But Reid upgraded the moral sense to the ranks of the rational faculties. So, the moral sense was above emotion. The moral sense was not ruled by the intellect, it ruled alongside it.

Too Much or Too Little Religion

Moral philosophy was a confident enterprise, but it also contained a number of important anxieties. The first of these anxieties concerned religion. Not whether moral philosophy had too much of it, but whether it might actually have too little. The college-based teachers of moral philosophy recorded their thinking and speculations in a lengthy collection of textbooks on ethics, many of which had very long lives and very high sales. Francis Wayland’s great “Elements of Moral Science”, which was first published in 1835, had sold 45000 copies by 1851, and 100000 copies by the end of the century.

These textbooks strained to present a semblance of uniformity on moral basis. Indeed they had to, because only uniformity would give a sense of verisimility to the claim that they were only reflecting the common sense of every conscious mind. However, the colleges where these moral philosophers taught were overwhelmingly church-related, and the faculties who taught in them were still overwhelmingly ordained clergy with specific, and sometimes very conflicting, denominational loyalties to serve.

Wayland was an ordained Baptist minister. Mark Hopkins was the grand nephew of Samuel Hopkins, and an ordained Congregationalist minister. Alexander was an old-school Presbyterian. It might prove highly inconvenient for a purely inductive and objective moral science to stumble across facts of human behavior, like free will, which might militate against their particular denominational identities, like Calvinism.

Worst still, it might be very embarrassing for these moral philosophers to find themselves in entire and uniform agreement in ethics with gentlemen who they were otherwise required by their denominations to anathematize. This was a particular problem for Calvinist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches and colleges. They could not had been happy at finding themselves allied in the cause of moral philosophy and the teaching of virtue alongside the wild fire of revivalism.

On the other hand, the moral philosophers may had been too loyal to their denominations. The very fact that they were mostly ordained clergy prevented them from setting up defensive national professional organization that other academic disciplines in America were already using to promote their own disciplinary interests, and the career of their members.

They all had to swear at the existence of a natural, and therefore common, Christian morality; but their conflicting denominational and theological identities prevented any of them from joining arms with each other in defense of either their discipline or morality. In the context of academic professionalization, that failure to organize any form of national professional association helped to deligitimize and undermine the whole moral philosophy endeavor.

So, they found themselves confused by the urge to remain loyal to their own denominational traditions, and paralyzed by the cynical suggestion that their denominational traditions really should mandate that they should never be seen together with these Revivalists.

The Failure of Moral Science

The second of moral philosophy’s anxieties touched on its claims to have a purely scientific non-partisan parentage. The moral philosophers liked to describe their inductive method of discovering universal moral principles out of the facts of consciousness as purely Baconian, after Sir Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum. In other words, as purely scientific, as an experiment in a laboratory.

To professional scientists, morality is not something you can measure in a test, or predict on an experimental basis. What was worst than the disapproval of the scientific professionals was the disapproval of the scientific amateurs. Already in the 1840’s, Americans were becoming fascinated by series of scientific enthusiasms which meant nothing good for the integrity of moral philosophy.

A similar threat emerged from a new interest in races, sparked in large measure by the hankering of Southern slave owners for a way of justifying the enslavement of African-Americans. Racism did this by ways of racial distinctions. Racism infused the identity of moral nature and moral characteristics with simple differences in human physical nature, without the need to consult the facts of consciousness or a moral sense.

But the greatest problem the moral philosophers encountered was the problem of overreach. Moral philosophy promised that it could discover a logical order, not just in physical nature, but in moral, economic and political nature as well. They found, over time, that the really serious ethical problems about virtue in the republic were so complicated and so ambiguous, that no absolute solution had any hope of appearing right to everyone’s moral sense.

The moral philosophers achieved consensus, but only on the issues that were so trivial that they mattered to no one but themselves. On the big ticket issues, like slavery, moral philosophers in the North and in the South arrived at solutions flatly contradictory to each other. So flatly, that it called into question the notion that everyone possesses some form of common moral sense that would always, like a scientific experiment, yield the same conclusion.

By the 1870’s, moral philosophy, attacked on one hand as too scientific to be religious; and attacked on the other hand as too religious to be scientific (both accusations sometimes coming from the same secular critics), had lost its intellectual legitimacy. The last great textbook in moral philosophy, “Our Moral Nature”, by Princeton’s James McCosh, was published after Mccosh’s retirement in 1888. By 1908, just 20 years later, when John Dewey collaborated with the production of a textbook on ethics for the American Science series, all mention of analogy and moral philosophy had been replaced by Pragmatism and Social Democracy.

Although the claims of the moral philosophers to scientific universality in ethics loosed legitimacy, it gave its heroes and readers an inescapable sense of their moral nature as human beings. With it, the need to order their lives on a plane considerably higher than the hedonism and indifference with which their successors, pragmatism and psychology, ended up with. Evolutionary humanism gave no joy, and less humanity to America than it had had at the hands of the moral philosophers.