It might seem odd to suggest that morality has a moral problem, but according to social-psychologist C. Daniel Batson (2016), that seems to be the case. In other words, despite the important work in moral theory from Aristotle to contemporary care ethicists, why is it that so often people fail to be moral? It seems that there is something of a translation (or transmission) problem such that even though we have numerous accounts of what goodness requires, rarely do those accounts succeed in bringing about good lives. Or, as Batson asks, why does morality so rarely get what it demands? In presenting things this way, Batson constructively, and non-reductively, positions moral philosophy as inevitably flawed unless it attends to the emerging data in moral psychology.
Although there are other philosophical takes on moral failure (see Tessman 2015), Batson’s approach is distinctive not only for its dependence on empirical data, but also for the way in which it positions moral life as a question of the relation between social values, emotions, motivations, and moral principles. Far from being a straightforward critique of moral philosophy as such, Batson’s text (along with his earlier work on empathy) helps to see the importance of philosophy in the first place as providing carefully articulated principles for moral social life. In this way, Batson offers what I would consider a psychological supplement that contributes both to the pragmatic question, “What is likely to make people more ethical?” and also to the phenomenological question, “What is the nature of morality such that it presents such difficulties for human social behavior?” In the present symposium, the contributors collectively address all of these components and implications of Batson’s work.
In the first essay, Christopher D. Merwin offers a social phenomenological consideration of Batson’s book by suggesting that from the outset Batson’s notion of “values” and “principles” requires a richer description of how such ideas get formed in the daily lives of social beings. Subsequently, Merwin contends that we should understand morality as always already plural: “moralities.” As such, the dynamics involved in moral life are, themselves, socially implicated.
The second contribution comes from Christy Flanagan-Feddon. In this essay, Flanagan-Feddon attempts to think at the intersection of the disciplines of philosophy and psychology in order to demonstrate that Batson’s account might benefit from a more expansive engagement with moral philosophers who have prioritized the relational dynamics of moral selfhood (viz., Emmanuel Levinas, Ludwig Feuerbach, Hannah Arendt, Judith Butler, among others). Flanagan-Feddon challenges what she takes to be Batson’s overemphasis on “intentional action-states” as missing the way in which morality might be a deeper aspect of social existence itself.
In the third essay, Lidewij Niezink extends the phenomenological approaches of Merwin and Flanagan-Feddon in a decidedly psychological, and applied, direction. Drawing on her own work in moral psychology, Niezink develops something of an account of phenomenological best-practices, as it were, for doing objective research into moral phenomena. Arguing that more qualitative empirical research would be a helpful supplement to Batson’s quantitative data, Niezink offers what she takes to be a better account of the moral lifeworld in which we could begin to get a better grasp on morality, and what might be wrong with it.
Finally, Mark Fagiano shifts from the phenomenological and psychological to the pragmatic in order to push back on what he locates as Batson’s ultimate desire to preserve “principlism.” Drawing on John Dewey and William James, Fagiano contends that moral experience is at least as important, and maybe more important than, moral principles. In this way, Fagiano moves in similar directions as does Flanagan-Feddon regarding the need to rethink Batson’s own conception of moral philosophy as too restrictive.
Ultimately, in this exciting set of exchanges with his critics, Batson is able to clarify and extend his position in ways that are provocative and promising for the future of moral philosophy, moral psychology, and moral life.
Batson, C. Daniel. 2016. What’s Wrong with Morality: A Social-Psychological Perspective. New York, NY and Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tessman, Lisa. 2015. Moral Failure: On the Impossible Demands of Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.