In her recent monograph, Literature and Moral Theory, Nora Hämäläinen presents the results of more than a decade of research on (mainly) Anglo-American moral theory. Her work develops the conviction that narrative literature can, and indeed should, be an opportunity to rethink the craft of academic moral philosophy. Hämäläinen’s study falls into five parts, which offer an outline of how narrative literature is considered in contemporary analytic Anglo-American moral philosophy. Chapter 1 gives an overview of the field. Chapter 2 is an examination of the idea of non-generalisability of moral perception and judgment. Chapter 3 is asking to what extent generality is implied in literature. Chapter 4 is an exemplary investigation of two prominent voices in the field, Iris Murdoch and Martha Nussbaum. And finally, Chapter 5 is a proposal for an inclusive theory, which aims to bridge the gap between ethicists who claim that to do ethics is to develop and defend theories and the ethicists who refute such a claim. Hämäläinen’s taxonomy of the use of literature in moral philosophy in Chapter 1 consists of no less than nine items: moral perception (respectively attention/attentiveness, relating to the lives of literary characters, the act of reading and the creative work of the reader), moral imagination (particularly taking the view of another person), particularity, practical judgment, morality as growth, the role of the emotions, the incommensurability of good things (complexity in moral issues, impurity, guilt, etc.), the broad conception of moral philosophy (particularly the quest for the good life), and the reality of the moral realm (p. 24ff.). In her discussion of non-generalisability in Chapter 2, Hämäläinen focuses on moral particularism, which argues that ‘moral principles are inadequate for accounting for the complexities for moral life’ (p. 57), and on anti-theory, which argues that ‘moral theory ought not to be pursued, because there can be no such thing as an adequate theory in ethics or because even the best theory will put distorting restrictions on our understanding of morality’ (p. 78f.). Both of these tendencies show overlaps, but they are not identical: ‘All notable recent anti-theoretical moral philosophers in the Anglo-American context seem to be particularists but not all particularists are anti-theorists’ (p. 79). Moral theory in the strongest and most provocative sense of the word is pursuing a ‘Newtonian’, law-like theory of ethics (p. 91), assuming that moral theories should be complete and hierarchically ordered and that there can be a calculus for action. While Hämäläinen (somewhat harshly) remarks that anti-theoretical descriptions of moral theory are at times old fashioned, prejudiced, and paranoid (p. 94), she does maintain that ‘anti-theoretical criticism is an important aspect of an overall reconsideration of the role and nature of theory in moral philosophy’ (p. 95). Again, throughout her work Hämäläinen makes it clear that she intends to bridge the gap between opposing positions. In Chapter 3, her consideration of generality in literature demonstrates that in contrast to what aestheticism claims, literature is not, as it were, the opposite of theory. Indeed, narrative literature can contain ‘propositional idea contents’, i.e. contents that can be paraphrased in a fairly simple form (p. 109), even though the narrative work will always escape an exhaustive translation into propositional language (p. 111). Beyond giving a comparative systematic survey of Martha Nussbaum’s and Iris Murdoch’s contributions to the field of literature and ethics, in Chapter 4 Hämäläinen particularly points to an article of Nussbaum’s where she distinguished between two kinds of ethicists who work in the field of literature and ethics, those who see literature and ethics as allies and those who see them as adversaries (p. 188). Nussbaum counts herself in the alliance camp, whereas Hämäläinen finds it lamentable that there be a gap between the camps in the first place. Hämäläinen’s own approach, which she develops in Chapter 5, is a variation of the ‘allies’ approach, which makes room for both literature and systematic theory in the overall picture of moral philosophy. However, she also seriously considers the antitheoretical radical challenge to moral theory. She summarises this challenge as follows: ‘moving from the perspective where moral theory seems to be the sensible way of making sense of morality, to the perspectives of morality suggested by literary works, may cause a loss of ground and orientation. Two ways of proceeding with moral philosophical questions seem to create two incompatible worlds, two meanings of morality even, rather than describing one and the same subject matter’ (p. 194, emphasis in original text). This loss of ground causes a fundamental disorientation, a vertigo which cannot be effectively alleviated by theory. In spite of its exaggerations, anti-theory is right in pointing out that there is no ultimate safe ground for structuring one’s thought or contemplating action beyond habit, mutual understanding, and practical agreement (p. 195). Narrative literature accounts for this potential plurality of perspectives and evaluations, and this is why Nussbaum’s rejection of anti-theory along the lines of her attempt to combine a substantial ethical consideration of narratives with moral theory fails to take seriously the problem at stake (p. 198, cf. p. 81). In Hämäläinen’s view, ‘moral theories are patterns of structured thought, based on moral beliefs and intuitions that people hold in real life. Different moral theories clarify different moral ideas or intuitions, give them a systematized form and put them in relation to each other, so that their role in the larger whole can be more clearly grasped’ (p. 205). Accordingly, theories can help to clarify moral situations, but they can never provide authoritative guidance (p. 206), indeed Hämäläinen makes it clear that the task of moral philosophy is not at all to call for normative, or meta-ethical commitments (p. 211). Nora Hämäläinen’s study is a great achievement. The reader finds not only a map of what turns out to be a vibrant field of moral philosophy, but also a strong proposal regarding the question of how to proceed in the future. The task of moral philosophy, she points out, is to clarify, not to define (how to define) rules. Those who count themselves in the ‘allies camp’ may not feel ‘included’ after all, since those who defend normative ethical theory are likely to disagree with Hämäläinen’s claim that moral theory essentially gives structure to our moral thinking. As regards theology, it is not a coincidence that theological approaches to narrative ethics do not appear in Hämäläinen’s work. Theologians like Ritschl and Hauerwas have very different fish to fry, as they focus on the contents of narrative traditions, not on the challenges that literature might pose to the way we ‘do’ ethics. Theological ethics might profit very much from inquiring what the implications of Hämäläinen’s work for narrative ethics within theology might be. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Literature and Theology – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 3, 2018
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