Sunday, March 9, 2008

Citizenship, Practical Reason and Narrative Ethics

By: Dr. Sheila Mason, Concordia University

We will achieve no lasting moral progress unless and until the daily unremarkable lives of people distant from us become real in the fabric of our own daily lives, until our everyday eudaimonistic judgments about our important ends include them as ends…” (Nussbaum, 2003, p.249)

High standards need strong sources. (Taylor, 1989, p. 516).


By what process does a value such as that of compassion, or generosity, ‘become real’ for us? How do we make the transition from indifference to verbal consent to wholehearted commitment to a value so that it becomes part of the ‘fabric of our lives’? What ‘sources’ are there to support our values? Do we just decide, by an act of will, to include these concerns once we conclude that they are reasonable? How do we expand our ‘standing desires’, the ones which do motivate us on a daily basis, to include something as large as the well-being of distant people or factory farmed animals?

There are two very general opposing approaches to this set of questions taken by philosophers and social scientists. Those who aspire to a scientific description of the world want to claim that there are no values in nature. Others find the reduction of thinking to scientific thinking to be a mistake and seeking to escape the deleterious effects of such ‘scientism’ have reintroduced a broader concept of thinking which includes moral understanding (Polanyi, 1962; Murdoch, 1970; Nussbaum,1990; Taylor, 1989; Taylor, 2000; Taylor, 2002; Wiggins, 2002; MacIntyre, 1984; McDowell,2002; Bruner, 1990). “To insist upon explanation in terms of ‘causes’ simply bars us from trying to understand how human beings interpret their worlds and how we interpret their acts of interpretation” (Bruner, 1990, p. xiii). According to the views I wish to describe in this paper interpretations are not merely arbitrary productions of the human mind, explicable, if at all, in terms of a causal history. “It is a terrible thing to try to live a life without believing in anything . But surely that doesn’t mean that just any old set of concerns and beliefs will do….Surely if any old set would do, that is the same as life’s being meaningless (Wiggins, 2002, p. 89).

The aim of this paper is to draw attention to some valuable recent writings on moral understanding and moral motivation. There are interesting parallels to be found in discussions of practical reason, narrative and the use of metaphor in poetry. My hope is that attention to these insights will enhance our appreciation of the kind of reflection and conversation that contributes to moral understanding as well as to insights about the difficult problem of extending moral motivation to include the concerns of distant sufferers within the ‘fabric of our lives’.

The Theory of Practical Reason

“Generally practical reason is any reasoning aiming at a conclusion concerning what to do” (Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 1996). For contemporary Virtue Theorists it is the ability to reason well about things that are of importance in life; such reasoning issues in good judgment in practice. This form of reasoning includes reasoning about the ‘ends’ worth pursuing and the best means to these ends.

Once we manage to discern which values call for realization in a particular situation, that is to say which ends are both worth pursuing and feasible in specific situations, we come to see that some of the means to these ends are themselves ‘constitutive’ of the ends in question. This line of thinking is a useful corrective to any orientation that is too focused on the final product. A good deal of meaning and satisfaction is to be derived from the activities which constitute our practices. So when we are reflecting upon what to do, that is trying to determine what the important thing is in any specific situation, we discover that certain responses count in themselves as the partial or total realization of the end (Wiggins, 2002, p. 220). The goal of many of our activities is realized in the doing. For example, an act of courage such as speaking up in public on behalf of corporate justice as Ray Anderson has done (Bakan, 2004) can be assessed both for its success, ‘did this act accomplish the persuasion intended?’ as well as for its ‘intrinsic’ value. Acts of courage are valuable as such because courage is a good and worthy trait, it is part of a life well lived, independently of its usefulness on particular occasions. A person makes use of this kind of thinking when he or she deliberates about what kind of life he wants to lead, or deliberates in a determinate context about which of several possible course of action would conform most closely to some ideal he holds before himself, or deliberates about what would constitute eudaimonia [human flourishing or happiness] here and now, or (less solemnly) deliberates about what would count as the achievement of the not yet completely specific goal which he has already set himself in the given situation (Wiggins, 2002, p. 220).

According to this theory of practical reasoning there are several factors whose juxtaposition and interaction make up practical thinking. In the first case we have a general standing desire, aim or goal, say to be help people, which we want to include it in the fabric of our daily lives. This value, so formulated has a certain vagueness to it. We might imagine paradigm cases or basic-level categorizations (Lakoff, 1987) of ‘helping people’ or ‘contributing to society’, or ‘giving back’ some of what we have received from others, or some such idea. The important move takes place when we are in a particular situation that calls for such a response. Now we have an opportunity to enact this general orientation or value by determining what to do, discerning what is to count as an expression of the general value. John McDowell illustrates this way of thinking with the following example: I might be looking forward to going to a party on Friday night. Just before leaving a friend comes by with a serious problem and obviously needs attention. I see the situation as one calling for a response to this person, as an occasion to put the general value into practice. If I am sufficiently committed to the general value I will respond to the need and forget about the party. In such a case other courses of action which are incompatible with the response that is called for in that situation are not weighed against the preferred course but are ‘silenced’ (McDowell, 2002).

This example illustrates two interesting things about practical reasoning. The first is that in order to discern the ‘salient’ features of the situation described in the example, I already have to be committed to the value of generosity, I have to care about being generous. If I were indifferent to this value I might not even perceive my friend’s need as important and I would certainly not perceive it as having any bearing on me. The presence of the general value in my life and the emotions associated with it enable me to read the situation and to ‘read myself into’ the situation (Nussbaum, 1990). Secondly, if I never encountered specific situations like the one in the example I would remain with a very general value that played only a minor role in my daily life, or no role at all. I might, for example, think of generosity as calling for monetary contributions to good causes and write out cheques to these causes once a year (Braybrooke, 2003). But this would be an impoverished understanding of the value. We need the practical specific occasions in order to crystallize our general concerns in a practical way. The virtue of practical reason consists in the ability to connect the general with the specific in such a way as to gain insight into both: what the value really means and what is salient in particular situations. The virtue of practical reason consists in the cognitive ability to discern what is important in general and to recognize what is important in a given situation, and to be properly affected by that recognition. Aristotle characterizes the virtuous person as one who feels the emotions and performs actions “at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way” (Aristotle, 1941, 1106b20-23). This kind of understanding can be represented in the form of a syllogism:

The first or major premise mentions something that can be the subject of desire, orexis , transmissible to some practical conclusion (i.e,, a desire convertible via some available minor premise into action). The second premise details a circumstance pertaining to the feasibility, in the particular situation to which the syllogism is applied, of what must be done if the claim of the major premises is to be heeded (Wiggins, 2002, p. 227).

According to this theory moral understanding is a dialectical process which involves a dynamic interaction between the general and the particular. Each part of the process is modified in our reading of practical situations, so that what I see depends on what I value and what I value is clarified by what I see.

The person of real practical wisdom is the one who brings to bear upon a situation the greatest number of genuinely pertinent concerns and genuinely relevant considerations commensurate with the importance of the deliberative context. The best practical syllogism is that whose minor premise arises out of such a one’s perceptions, concerns and appreciations. It records what strikes the person as the in the situation most salient feature of the context in which he has to act. This activates a corresponding major premise that spells out the general import of the concern that makes this feature the salient feature of the situation (Wiggins, p. 233).

This analysis of the components of evaluative thinking enables us to ask some interesting questions. First, “how do we identify the general values that we should include in our major premise?”. Secondly, “Why should a person care about generosity, or kindness, or courage or truthfulness? And what if they do not care about these values?” A third question might be “How should we characterize a person who sometimes feels like being kind, or courageous and does not feel like it at other times?”. Contemporary virtue theorists hold that these are issues concerning the acquisition of deep and rich understanding and admit that it is impossible to convince a thoroughgoing sceptic of the value of something if that person has not already incorporated it into his or her life. A thoroughgoing sceptic holds a very stark view [and] sees no meaning in anything. But it is evidently absurd to try to reduce the sharpness of the viewpoint by saying that meaning can be introduced into the world thus seen by the addition of human commitment. Commitment to what? [Such a] conceptual scheme articulates nothing that it is humanly possible to care about (Wiggins, 2002, p. 121).

One can only grasp the significance of right conduct “via the notion of a virtuous person. … from the inside out” (McDowell, 1998, p. 50). The whole process of reasoning about our highest ideals must take place from within ‘moral space’. “My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done..” (Taylor, 1989, p. 27). If we have no clue about the value of generosity we will need some powerful experience to give us the clue. Similarly when we waffle and act inconsistently it is because we lack a rich and vivid experiential understanding of the value. The cultivation of virtue is precisely the cultivation of this vivid sense of commitment.

This way of characterizing moral understanding has an almost trivial air to it. It sounds like basic common sense. Yet we live in a culture, both social and intellectual, which repeatedly tells us to maximize pleasure and minimize pain at any cost, and we are continuously exposed to the idea that a life well lived is a life in pursuit of the satisfaction of as many desires as possible. The point that virtue theorists want to emphasize is that not all desires and not all pleasures are part of a worthy life (Nussbaum, 1990; MacIntyre, 2001). Take, for example, the desire for knowledge. From the perspective of Aristotle’s theory, knowledge is a good thing, not because we sometimes desire knowledge, which we do, but on the contrary, we desire knowledge because it is a good thing independently of the state of our desires (Taylor, 1989; Finnis, 1980). This reverses the current culturally embedded idea that things are only good if they are the objects of desire. But putting desire at the head of the list, so to speak, prevents us from finding criteria for choosing among desires, and from knowing which desires to cultivate and which to minimize.

How do we cultivate the right desires and how do we sharpen our appreciation of values so that we are capable of creative solutions to practical problems? We need experience coupled with reflection so as to cultivate a moral understanding that increases in breadth and depth (Kekes, 1984) returning us constantly to the richness of the world. Narrative is the vehicle which takes us directly into that world because narrative understanding involves a pulling together of elements into a gestalt, much the way practical reasoning involves a pulling together of the major premise with the minor premise to engender a new gestalt.

Narrative Knowing

The phrase ‘narrative knowing’ is redundant because the root of ‘narrative’ is ‘gnarare, gnarus’: ‘knowing’, ‘to give an account of ‘ (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 1968). Yet in a world heavily influenced by scientific paradigms of knowledge and rational decision making, it is worth emphasizing the cognitive component of narrative and, showing, as I hope to do here, that narrative provides the occasion for us to enrich and renew our knowledge of what is important in human life. Further, I want to show that narrative can provide emotional contact with the deepest “sources” of our standards and ideals.

In this section I begin with a story which illustrates an ‘epiphany’ which for Charles Taylor is the means of breaking through from ordinary thinking to contact with our moral sources. I will analyze the story making use of Ricoeur’s notion of ‘plot’ and ‘making present’.

The Language Lesson

You walk the halls of this place, and what do you see from room to room? Most people peer in and see this retarded child or that one. They focus on this particular mannerism or that deformity. I do it too. It’s very compelling, that picture.

But one kid flipped me around on that. We were doing language exercises. And for some godforsaken reason I’d chose the exchange “How are you?” …”I’m doing fine.”We’d go back and forth. Well, he was having quite a hard time of it, slurring out, “Iy dluee fie” or some such. “Let’s try again, really slowly,” I said. “How … are…you?” And he slurred “Iy dluee fie”. Then suddenly he burst into this wonderful crazy laugh. It was the nuttiest sound we’d ever heard, either of us. He wasn’t doing fine at all. Neither was I. We were doing terribly. It was absurd. We just be fan to howl.

In the midst of that he suddenly gave me this very clear look-the eyes behind the expression. And I had a sudden thought: “My God, he knows more that I’ll ever know about all this. He sees the whole situation.” At which point he just scrunched up his face like a clown and gave me this wonderful wink.

I was just stunned. All I could see was this incredible sense of the humor of things. It was so deep in him. He just had it all in perspective. And he gave that perspective to me.

When I left him, my head was spinning. I walked down the hall and looked into the other rooms, at kids I’d known, or so I’d thought, for months. It was totally new. I don’t quite know how to describe it. In this room I saw courage. In that room I saw joy. Across the hall, patience. In yet another room , such sweetness: a little boy who was so continuously filled with love.. (cited in Dass & Gorman, 1985, pp. 140-141).

Three elements of this story stand out as examples of the kind of narrative knowing that enhances our grasp of value: surprise, humor and awe. The story begins with ordinary categories of thought: ‘retarded’ children, and the ‘logical’ approach to problem solving which states that if there is a deficiency, repeated practice will remedy it. The surprise comes with the sudden flash of recognition of the incongruity of that approach, repeating this particular sentence whose meaning was absurdly false in the context. This opens a dimension that was previously hidden from view: the emotional recognition of deep human values.

Following Charles Taylor we can characterize this experience as an ‘epiphany’. The term ‘epiphany’ has its roots in the Greek word ‘phainos’, that which appears or is manifest. Taylor has made use of this notion to support his view that the strong sources which we need to support our high standards are to be found in the experience of epiphanies. When a technical and instrumental society like our own promotes the view of disengaged reason and entrenches this outlook in its institutions it offers images of life which “occlude deeper meanings making them hard to discern” (Taylor, 1989, p. 500). Any retrieval of the lived experience or creative activity underlying our awareness of the world can work toward establishing contact with the sources of value and combating the hold of mechanistic thinking (Taylor, 1989, p. 460-461). Narratives such as the one above can contribute to a sense of resonance, depth or richness of experience and move us away from the intellectual repudiations and denials which stultify us by cutting us off from the empowerment available in the acknowledgement of goodness (Taylor, 1989, p.504)

But what elements of narrative enable us to break through to the underlying values? Ricoeur has identified the plot as the organizing function of the story. The plot is a gathering together of the events of the story into a meaningful whole which expresses some human concern or value. The events of the story consist of actions and experiences whose sense is given by means of the plot (Ricoeur, 1981, p. 170). These actions, and the thoughts and feelings surrounding them, move in a certain direction, toward a conclusion. The conclusion of a story is not something that follows deductively from the events and the plot. Rather, the conclusion is something unpredictable which must be acceptable to the audience. “The conclusion is the ‘pole of attraction’ of the entire development” (Ricoeur, 1981, p. 170). The conclusion works if the audience is open to the idea that these sorts of events can happen and can have the meaning implied in the story. In the story of the Language Lesson the events of the lesson and the sudden sense of the absurd become meaningful as vehicles for creating a shift of perspective from the ordinary to the extraordinary. The shift of perspective records an epiphany: a sense of awe at the recognition of the presence of courage, joy, and love. The conclusion offers the hearer the occasion to experience an epiphany.

Ricoeur places this analysis of narrative within a discussion of Heidegger’s notion of the “publicness of Being-in-the-world with one another” (Ricoeur, 1981, p. 172). When a story is told it gathers together an audience of those who collude in the interpretation of events as described in the story and this gathering involves a sense of being-in-time which is different than the ordinary notion of clock-time as a series of equal moments moving toward infinity. The being-in-time of a narration is first of all the shared time of the characters of the story, and secondly that sense of the present which the listeners experience when the plot of the story is ‘made present’. Narrative combines the chronological and the non-chronological: the chronological consists of the episodes or events of the story, while the non-chronological consists in “the configurational dimension, according to which the plot construes significant wholes out of scattered events” (Ricoeur, 1981, p. 174). It is the latter element, the ‘grasping together’ into a whole of a set of events that is similar to the exercise of practical reason, which, as we have seen, is also a bringing together, or a making present in one moment, the salient features of a particular situation with our general values.

Both practical reason and narrative knowing are forms of thinking that require linking together two dimensions of experience, our sense of what is important, of value, and the particular events which, seen through the lens of value, are appreciated for the value they have . Both practical reason and narrative activity make present the value dimension in the world. Values appear clothed in the specifics of the situation in the case of practical reason and in the specifics of the events in the story. Grasping the enacted values is a kind of thinking that does not fit the model of scientific thinking nor the model of rational decision making, which involves arbitrarily deciding that something is going to count as a value, to be projected out on a value neutral world. Valuing is better described as a form of discovery of what is there to be valued. This is illustrated particularly well by the story The Language Lesson because it is a story about the experience of discovery.

But discoveries are useless if they remain as isolated events in our consciousness. To be genuine sources of knowledge and value discoveries need to be linked. In other words, the epiphanies that break through the ordinary experience of life would simply fade away from consciousness if we could not connect them with other events and experiences. The process of connecting experiences of value or meaning is illustrated by a story told to me by a friend from India, which I never tire of hearing.


I was a young man at the time and I went to visit a friend. I was surprised to find a famous guru at his house. The guru spoke to me for a while and then asked me what I had to give him. I was young and sceptical and generally confused about life and thought ‘Oh these gurus they always want something’. I was also poor at the time, I was a student. I replied that I had only what he saw, my old sandals repaired so many times they were beyond repair, the clothes on my back and one more set of clothes at home and an old bicycle given to my father. He said “I’ll take the sandal”. So I said “okay, here they are” and handed him my sandals. He said “you can go now”. So I left not even having visited my friend. Out in the street it was forty five degrees, very hot and my feet were burning and I couldn’t even ride my bike as I had bare feet. I was wondering what foolishness I had committed when, having walked about a hundred yards I saw a good friend approaching. He said Matther “what are you doing walking without sandals? Where are your sandals?” I said “Never mind, it’s a long story”. He was carrying a parcel wrapped in paper. He said here I have just had a pair of sandals made for me and there was some confusion and they made a pair that was too small and then they made a pair the right size and they gave me the extra pair at no cost. Take them”. I took the sandals, and put them on my feet. They fit perfectly and were the finest chappals I’ve ever seen before or since. Then I remembered the guru has said “your karma is to give”. So I give and I don’t worry about it. I never worrry about material things. (Veejay Matther, personal communication).

We could characterize this as the story of an epiphany because it represents a breakthrough of an experience of value into ordinary consciousness of the intrinsic value of giving. Once one has made contact with this ideal one can develop what McDowell has called a ‘reliable sensitivity’ to situations which call for that virtue. In fact the virtue is the sensitivity (McDowell, 2002, p. 51). My friend Veejay finds no shortage of occasions for him to exercise his ‘karma’ of giving.

So here we have an example of the kind of reflection and conversation which is conducive to moral understanding and an answer to the question about how to include high ideals, into the fabric of our daily life. Not one epiphany but a sensitivity to the possibility of epiphany in any human situation is what is required. An openness to possibilities of transcendence. This involves a “slippage from our normal sense of measured time [which] is the essential condition for a deeper experience which opens another dimension of life” (Taylor, 1989, p. 464). We need to be able to discern a coherence among epiphanies which cuts across time, the ‘non-chronological configurational dimension’ and the ‘making present’ described by Ricoeur as the essence of narrative. This is like seeing a pattern on the ground from high up which cannot be seen at ground level. It requires that we be capable of standing back and shifting perspectives.

But once we include an ideal into the fabric of our life, if the ideal is a very high one, such as that evoked by Martha Nussbaum, compassion for citizens of a globalizing community, we risk overextending ourselves. What is the difference between a person who has full virtuous understanding of a value and the readiness to enact it willingly, and the person who agrees that the value is worth pursuing, who says “I ought to be more generous”, “I ought to pay heed to those who are in need” but who doesn’t? Such a person, the famous akratos, the weak-willed person of Aristotle’s ethics, has knowledge of the good but the knowledge lacks resonance and depth. “We need new languages of personal resonance to make crucial human goods alive for us again” (Taylor, 1989, p.513). A “great epiphanic work actually can put us into contact with the sources it taps. It can realize the contact” (Taylor, 1989, p. 512). To say that narrative knowledge is a source of moral understanding is to distinguish this from behavior modification which is induced chemically or through some direct alteration of brain states.

I have described narrative knowing as the kind of knowing [that] puts us in contact with, important human values. I turn now to another sort of knowing, poetic knowing which, through the use of metaphor, performs many of the functions of narrative knowing described in this paper.


“What the human mind must do in order to comprehend a metaphor is a version of what it must do in order to be wise” (Zwicky, 2003, Foreword).

We have seen in the previous discussion of practical reason and narrative knowing that understanding value involves connecting two elements of knowledge. In the case of practical reason we connect the present facts of the situation (so-and-so is crying) with an espoused value known in a vague and general way (kindness is good). The moment of insight occurs when the two forms of knowledge come together and the situation is seen as an occasion calling for that particular value. When we see a situation in the light of a value we give the value a new precision: discerning an appropriate response renews and redefines the value. In addition, we have seen in the case of narrative a similar bringing together of events into a pattern of meaning which infuses value into the events, what Ricoeur calls a ‘making present. “The experience of understanding something is always the experience of a gestalt – the dawning of an aspect that is simultaneously a perception or a reperception of the whole” (Zwicky 2003, p. L2). I have argued that both practical reason and narrative knowing can be viewed as occasions for contact with the sources of value, epiphanies. Now I want to go a little further and show that metaphor is the mode, par excellence, of connected knowing. “Metaphor is a species of understanding, a form of seeing-as: it has, we might say, flex. We see, simultaneously, similarities and dissimilarities” (Zwicky, 2003, p. L4). And if metaphor is the vehicle, par excellence, of this form of understanding, poetry is the vehicle, par excellence, of metaphor. I begin, then, with a poem.

Summer Solstice
Dandelions are gathering

More arriving everyday

A huge demonstration

They are standing still

Against all threats

Willing to suffer for their conviction

Waving their yellow flags


Even the elders

With their white heads

Are joining in

Power of courage


They chant silently

Celebrating life

Summer Solstice

Victory of light

Victory of joy

Victory of renewal

Against all odds…
(Christiane Graham)

The epiphany so beautifully expressed by this poem can be compared with conclusions of the two stories discussed above. All three works are vehicles for contact with moral sources. The poem engenders a resonance in the soul through the cadence of the language and the images. But to link poetry with ethics is to run the risk of severe criticism from philosophers committed to the rational paradigm of reason. Can we include poetry as a source of moral understanding without at the same time degrading moral understanding to a category of irrational thinking? Is this a ‘dangerous’ thing to do as one of my colleagues remarked when hearing about the project of this paper? Common sense suggests that there are two dangers in this issue: on the one hand there is the danger, which I have attempted to redress in this paper, of attempting a non-metaphorical representation of moral life; the danger of the disenchantment of the world. On the other hand, there is danger, of concern to most philosophers and scientists, of giving up critical thinking altogether, allowing thought to be governed wholly by images and emotion.

This is a problem from which there is no escape. There is no moral sedge way which will do the balancing for us. We get it right, we get it wrong and with luck we get it right again. The balance is sought in ‘lyric philosophy’ which tips the balance back again from a world viewed mechanistically, disenchantedly to a world viewed as a whole. “Lyric philosophy: thought in love with clarity, informed by the intuition of coherence, by a desire to respond to the preciousness of the world” (Zwicky, 1992, p.103).

In the poem Summer Solstice the metaphor of the dandelions gathering to celebrate renewal works through the tension created in our minds of knowing that dandelions do not do this but humans can and do. Each side of the metaphor is viewed in a new light: dandelions as beautiful, not mere weeds, and humans as capable of celebration against terrible odds. The insight, the reminder of this possibility, works dynamically in a way that a maxim cannot. The tension in the metaphor calls for an energetic kind of understanding, a response which evokes the very celebration it calls for.

Zwicky contrasts this integrative kind of understanding with philosophical analysis. “In an analysis integration does not occur. The aims of analysis are explicitly disintegrative” (Zwicky, 1992, p. 4). Yet once we have dissected a sentence or an argument we cannot return to wholeness by simply adding the parts together. . “Old-style synthesis, as the complementary technique to analysis, is additive rather than integrative. Its elements remain insular..” (Zwicky, 1992, p. 4). Wholeness or integrity, on the other hand, is always a dynamic production, the result of insight which connects the parts in such a way as to change our understanding of them. What we make of the parts will depend upon the vision we bring to the situation. In practical reasoning the major and the minor premises combined in a particular moment of perception are each changed in the light of one another. And in narrative the plot organizes the elements of the story so that they are seen as contributing to the conclusion. In both forms of understanding aspects are selected form the complex situation and from vaguely defined values, and fitted together, at a particular moment in time, to make a whole. Metaphor works in this same dynamic and selective way.

We need reminders to acknowledge processes that are dimly understood and rich in ambiguity. For minds in love with clarity, ambiguity threatens until it is recognized as inescapable, until we make peace with this fact of moral life. But the presence of inescapable ambiguity is no reason to abandon the enterprise or to redefine it so that ambiguity is banished from the scene. This thought is well expressed by Mark Platts who includes ethics within a realist semantic theory.

We detect moral aspects in the same way we detect (nearly all) other aspects: by looking and seeing. …. Second, …certainty plays no role in this form of [thought]. This is a consequence of taking realism seriously. By the process of careful attention to the world, we can improve our moral beliefs about the world, make them more approximately true; by the same process we can improve our practical understanding, our sensitivity to the presence of instances of moral concepts that figure in these beliefs. But this process of attention to improve beliefs and understanding goes on without end; there is no reason to believe …that we shall ever be justified in being certain that we have now completely understood any of the moral concepts occurring in these beliefs. Our moral language, like all the realistic part of that language, transcends our present practical comprehensions in trying to grapple with an independent, indefinitely complex reality; only ignorance of that realism could prompt the hope for certainty (Platts, 1979, p. 247, italics added).

We have no guarantee of being right. We are notoriously creatures who become enchanted, blinded with our own images. But it helps to know this because we can then have our cake and eat it too. We can learn to deliteralize our images, to see them as mere means with which to grasp aspects of reality; means to gain a glimpse of something. With this understanding we can seek out and enjoy metaphors for their power to give us flashes of meaning and value. This idea is developed further by Edwards who, relying on Heidegger, interprets Wittgenstein’s moral philosophy as making just that point.

One of Wittgenstein’s favorite techniques for liberation is to deliteralize a particular picture by putting into contact with other, and incompatible images also found in the grammar (one sort of “perspicuous presentation”). This … is to give all images their due as images; it is also to allow mind to play freely among a multitude of images, using those that are appropriate at a given time, literalizing none of them into pictures [representations of reality] (Edwards, 1985, p. 211).

What Edwards advocates is that we remain aware of images as lenses, modes of organizing experience, so that we never forget that the image is only a way of seeing and not the final literal representation of its object. This is clear in poetry because we know that the poet has devised images for a particular point. Similarly in narrative we know that the narrator organizes the events of the story to make a certain point, the expression of certain values. It is less clear, however, in ethical thought, especially when that thought is rendered as a series of rules to be followed, or ‘ought’ statements and other exhortatory devices. “The temporary appropriation of the poetic image deliteralizes all our seeing, at least for a time” (Edwards, 1985, p. 213).
To compare moral understanding with poetry and metaphor helps to deliteralize it. We become more aware of the possibility of remaining open to aspects of the world that are there but hidden from view, accessible in glimpses, gestalt shifts, and epiphanies, “where the mind itself is recognized in every act of seeing” (Edwards, 1985, p. 216).


In this paper I have attempted to throw some light on the question “what sort of reflection leads to moral understanding?”, with a view to the possibility of deepening our moral responses to the global community. I have suggested that the approach to moral life taken by virtue theory offers insights about the development of moral motivation and about the kind of reflection that is involved in practical reasoning. The focal point of the discussion was Taylor’s concern with the moral bankruptcy we risk from holding ideals in the absence of the motivation necessary to include these ideals in our daily lives. I made use of his notion of ‘epiphany’, which, like all of the organizing concepts of this paper, cannot be captured in any definition stating necessary and sufficient conditions. I suggested that having such an experience is no guarantee of being able to sustain high ideals, in other words, it is neither logically sufficient nor, logically necessary. Within this vaguely described terrain, however, there are truths that can be recognized from experience. Those lacking the experience will find this of little use, and those who have had such experiences might, at best, be reminded to pay more attention to the possibilities that arise in situations which we construe with the dynamic methods of practical reason, narrative or poetry.

I became interested in the notion of epiphanies as a moral source during my own experience of illness when the rigorous ordeals of treatment for breast cancer left me vulnerable but open to the many sources of support, kindness and beauty that are there, beneath the surface of things, waiting to be tapped. The two friends whose story and poem appear in this paper exercised their magic, repeatedly, during the most difficult moments of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and mastectomy. My thought is that these small epiphanies, which so enhanced my life, might be of the same order as the larger epiphanies necessary to respond well to the demands of a globalizing world. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the desperate plight of the majority of people of the world, and of the animals and the environment as well, is something which is becoming increasingly salient to many more of us who have surpluses in our lives. Since these are large issues they call for large epiphanies.

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1 comment:

Dana Bates said...

Dr. Mason,
Loved your article. I am finishing a thesis on Eastern Orthodoxy and the capabilities approach and there are a lot of overlaps with your interests. If you get this, email me at we also run a youth development organization in Romania and beyond that uses service learning thanks, your article was an epiphany!
Dana Bates