What Dancy’s Late Late Show appearance has to say about the philosopher’s disappearance

On April 1, 2010, the professional philosopher Jonathan Dancy, who happens to be the father-in-law of Claire Danes, appeared on the Late Late Show to speak with Craig Ferguson about moral philosophy in general and about moral particularism more specifically. Let it be said from the first that I am quite sympathetic to Dancy’s view of moral particularism, an account of ethics according to which the right thing to do does not require a ready supply of moral principles to equip one with reasons for acting morally. In his book, Ethics without Principles, he defends this view that the moral agent acts by paying attention to the salient features of the case at hand and does so with a logical rigor for which analytic philosophy is well-known. Daoism and Aristotelianism also, though in different ways, give one to understand that the morally virtuous person is a person who has learned to act spontaneously (wu wei) or to sharpen his moral perception. In the ethical life, no moral principles are required and when they are offered, they offer us no help in our moral deliberations.

Still, Dancy shows his professional philosopher’s hand. The turning point of the interview occurs around the 6:30 mark. Ferguson presses Dancy to say something to the effect that moral philosophers know better how to live than their fellow layperson, yet Dancy refuses to play along. (One would have thought, Ferguson seems to assume, that a life spent considering questions of right and wrong would make one fit for acting rightly and for not acting wrongly.) Dancy replies,

As a philosopher, I’m not in the business of telling people how to live. I’m in the business of trying to understand something. What I’m trying to understand is what it is for actions to be right and what it is for actions to be wrong…. Most moral philosophers are singularly ill-equiped to do that [i.e., to tell individuals how to live].

Dancy’s assumption is that philosophers (by which he means professional philosophers) either tell people how to live or they try to understand something. The first conception is that the philosopher is a kind of adviser who issues oughts: recommendations, advice, counsel, and maxims. His second conception is that of a figure who constructs theories of how things work. Believing that the first claim is false, he concludes that the second has to be true.

In this assumption that the philosopher is either an adviser or a theoretician, Dancy follows the late professional philosopher W.V.O. Quine who, in 1979, wrote a short article, ‘Has Philosophy Lost Contact with People?,’ for Newsday. Quine:

Philosophers in the professional sense have no peculiar fitness for it [namely, edification, public instruction, etc]. Neither have they any peculiar fitness for helping to get society on an even keel, though we should all do what we can. What just might fill these perpetually crying needs is wisdom: sophia yes, philosophia not necessarily.

I think this assumption is false. Yesterday, I sought to show that the philosopher is not a teller, and tomorrow I wish to show how philosophy can move between a ‘religious’ understanding–the cultivation and transformation of the self–and a ‘public’ understanding–engagement with the affairs of the day. Mine is the first project, my friends at the Center for the Study of Interdisciplinarity map out the second.

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