Irene McMullin, professor of philosophy at the University of Essex in the UK posits: if the ethical life means being good to ourselves, to others, and to the world, how do you choose if these demands compete?
Conventional wisdom depicts moral struggle as an internal conflict between a higher moral self and an untamed dark side. This picture pervades popular imagination: the angel and the devil on either shoulder, the ‘two wolf’ parable, the Ego and the Id, the ‘true self’ and the ‘false self’. It resonates with religious traditions that place us between angels and animals in a Great Chain of Being, leaving us torn between higher and lower, spirit and body, good and evil, the demands of conscience and the lure of sin.
This view also calls to mind a philosophical tradition from Plato to Immanuel Kant that often presents life’s major moral struggles as a kind of combat between the requirements of duty and the dangers of desire. The self is fragmented and must struggle for wholeness by casting out or silencing its evil components, refusing to give immoral intentions a foothold in thought and deed. A good deal of moral theory, therefore, tends to assume that there’s a morally right answer about what one ought to do in any given circumstance. Any difficulty in doing the right thing results from (evil, selfish) resistance, not from the fact that one cannot do all the good or valuable things that one is called upon to do.
However, this familiar view ignores the fact that, in many cases, the problem is not how best to override or silence one’s dark side, but how to cope with having too many good or morally neutral demands on your limited time, energy or resources. In other words, the key issue in many cases is not whether to be moral at all – but rather how best to distribute your moral resources in conditions of scarcity and conflict. Coping well with this latter kind of moral challenge requires very different ways of thinking about moral agency and how to lead good lives.
There are (at least) three different classes of goods that regularly give rise to incommensurable but competing legitimate moral claims, each revealed through a different practical stance that we adopt towards the world as we try to figure out what to do and who to be. On this picture, each agent is indeed fragmented, but this fragmentation is not best understood as an internal conflict between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ selves. Instead, moral conflict should be understood in terms of competing dimensions of the good – not all of which can be accommodated in any given moment.
What are these three basic normative domains or classes of value? It can be helpful to think of these in terms of the traditional literary distinction between the first-, second- and third-person perspectives. A novel written from the first-person perspective provides access to the protagonist’s struggles from the inside; the reader says ‘I’ along with her. In the second-person perspective, the focus is on the other person: the ‘you’ takes centre stage. When written from the third-person perspective, every character’s struggles are viewed from the outside; each is referred to as ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘they’ or ‘it’ in descriptions of their movements in the world of the novel. Though some characters might be more important than others, typically none is singled out as providing the primary lens through which the world finds its meaning.
These perspectives are not just useful literary devices. They are core practical perspectives that we adopt toward the world and our place in it. As we pursue our projects and pleasures, interact with others, and share public institutions and meanings, we are constantly shifting back and forth among these three practical perspectives, each bringing different elements of a situation to salience and highlighting different features of the world and our place in it as good or bad.
Read Professor McMullin’s full essay where it was originally published at Aeon.co.
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