Descriptive Ethics

Exclusive blog from Nora Hämäläinen

Descriptive Ethics

Nora Hämäläinen, author of Descriptive Ethics, reflects on empirical research and knowledge in the study of morality.

One of the central and open questions in ethics today is the role of empirical research and knowledge in the study of morality. A growing number of philosophers are working in interdisciplinary settings and engage in collaborations with empirical researchers from different fields. In areas like bioethics, the ethics of technology, animal ethics, global justice, and gender studies, the active search for empirical knowledge about the issues involved play a growing part. Philosophical analysis and considered ethical judgment depend on things we realize that we cannot learn about while remaining in the armchair. The need for more knowledge is felt especially in areas where conditions, technologies, and sensibilities are undergoing relatively rapid change. What can we say about the ethics of robot caregivers if we do not know what they are like, what they can do, how people interact with them, how they alter surrounding practices of care, and what reasons and rationales there are for introducing them? Or what can we know about the ethics of gender, unless we know how gender is experienced, inhabited, enacted in our present changing societies? 

At the same time, a turn to the empirical raises worries about a loss of philosophical or broader theoretical substance. A colleague working at a centre for bioethics recently lamented the shrinking role of philosophical analysis in his research environment and the increase of data collection. The tilting of the balance towards more empirical work in ethics may lead some people to think that philosophers and the philosophical traditions are superfluous in the study of morality, values, and good life. This latter view is explicitly argued by Barry Hoffmaster, who in a paper in Bioethics from 2018 argues that moral philosophy in the field of bioethics needs to be replaced by a non-philosophical “contextual” ethics that is both empirically informed and reflectively normative. In this case, the argument is premised on a very narrow foundationalist understanding of what moral philosophy is or can be. But the view is also tacitly held by a large number of researchers who simply find their empirical tools and potentials for getting ethical issues into view sufficient for academic and applicable ethical thought.

This situation checks most moral philosophers’ enthusiasm over the current turn toward empirical research. The philosopher’s dismay at the prospect of being shouldered out from ethics research is not mainly a regret over lost employment opportunities. Rather, it concerns the quality of academic work in the field. If the aim of ethics research is the kind of knowledge that can help people to make more reflective, considered, and well-informed decisions, then surely the rich philosophical traditions of reflection (theoretical, conceptual, and normative) on ethical issues should not be set aside. 

But how does one strike a proper balance?

One of the epigraphs of my book Descriptive Ethics: What does Moral Philosophy Know about Morality comes from Annette Baier’s book Postures of the Mind: Essays on Mind and Morals from 1985. There she writes that “We philosophers need to work with anthropologists, sociologists, sociobiologists, psychologists, to find out what actual morality is; we need to read history to find how it has changed itself, to read novels to see how it might change again.” This quotation has travelled with me for many years, perhaps because the meaning it holds for me has changed over the years. Having entered academic philosophy before the current broad turn towards more applied ethical work, I initially considered it merely a reminder of the importance of seeking to understand “actual morality” in a setting where this was often forgotten and crude armchair assumptions about people’s lives could as a consequence pass as obvious facts.             

But it is in fact much more demanding than that: we philosophers need to work with people in these other disciplines, but there are no settled practices for doing so. What it means to do it may change from case to case, study to study, or researcher to researcher. This “working with,” if done properly, casts us permanently out of our comfort zone, out of the neat, well-contained philosophical debates that we more or less know in advance how to conduct. On the other side of the “with,” we find those others, from whom we wish to learn, but who also may need to learn to work with us, to find our concerns relevant and our ways of wording the world helpful. And together we need to “find out what actual morality is,” knowing that the lived “actual” morality is infinitely complex and mobile, and any description of it dependent on the conceptual resources and evaluative inclinations of the speaker.

To enter these interdisciplinary conversations, a great deal of disciplinary self-knowledge and self-reflection is needed. We need to understand our own habits of intellect and attention and how they are constituted by our discipline and scholarly traditions. Descriptive Ethics is a stab at such self-reflection. I argue that philosophers, for reasons of method and self-understanding, often are unable to make full professional use of their broader, real-life understanding of their subject matter. Yet our philosophical traditions also contain important resources for remedying this problem, in the form of prominent thinkers who have invested particular effort in the description of our historically contingent situation. Such thinkers often bring philosophy closer to the theoretical traditions of neighbouring fields and enable new conversations.

My idea is that bringing some descriptive limitations as well as resources of contemporary moral philosophy properly into view will help us handle the interplay between philosophical thought and empirical input more reflectively, and enable us to become better, more self-aware, open, and curious participants in the kinds of collaborations that Baier was asking for and that increasingly come our way in academia and beyond.

Nora Hämäläinen is a senior researcher at the Centre for Ethics as Study in Human Value, University of Pardubice, Czech Republic and docent in philosophy at the University of Helsinki, Finland. She is the author of Literature and Moral Theory and has co-edited the volume Language, Ethics and Animal Life — Wittgenstein and Beyond (with Niklas Forsberg and Mikel Burley).

Descriptive Ethics