The Geography of Morals

Varieties of Moral Possibility

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Owen Flanagan
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     368 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Owen Flanagan’s The Geography of Morals: Varieties of Moral Possibility is something of a sequel to his Varieties of Moral Personality in which he argued for a naturalistic ethics with moral theory becoming aligned with the findings of human psychology. The new book embeds that argument in a variety of cultural forms of life to display the range of what he calls moral possibility in its full, rich diversity. Moral possibility speaks to the myriad practices comprising the good life as viewed from a comparative, cross-cultural perspective. It is a high place from which we can see good lives in their emphatic plurality.

Flanagan identifies two culprits that unwittingly collude to obscure the vantage of moral possibility. Following Alasdair MacIntyre, he first criticizes mainstream moral philosophers for being “disciplinary narrow, unreflectively culture-bound, and psychologically, sociologically, and anthropologically unrealistic” (15). Second, he chides his scientific interlocutors for their culturally-blinkered view of moral cognition, empirically based as it is on the WEIRD—Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic twenty-year-olds—who provide most of the research samples for psychological research. Interestingly enough, both of these foils construe morality in universal terms: philosophers do it conceptually, while scientists do it biologically. For both, culture is a hindrance or is otherwise irrelevant to the practices of morality.

Against the backdrop of these assumptions, Flanagan makes three arguments. The first is a tour de force demonstration of the full range of moral possibility one finds surveying the sweep of culturally derived forms of life. This first argument, crafted as an antidote against the prophylactic effects of parochialism, unfortunately brings with it the specter of relativism. Contra the relativist critique, Flanagan puts forward two additional arguments: moral possibility does not reduce, ipso facto, to moral relativism; and moral possibility does not necessarily preclude normative evaluation.

Flanagan organizes his book into four parts. The first functions as a polemic; the second through fourth demonstrate the scope of moral possibility and its application to a number of topics, such as self-identity and moral education. Part 1, “Variations,” is a broadside against Enlightenment parochialism. Anglophone moral philosophers in particular are condemned for their conceit that there are two types of ethical thought in the world: consequentialism and Kantianism. In chapter 1, both types claim to represent atemporal/ahistorical ethical truth shorn of all cultural particularities. Flanagan dismisses this claim insofar as it ignores ethical forms of life other than that of the WEIRD. In chapter 2, he examines the literature on moral cognition, sociobiology, and judgment.

Parts 2–4 provide a thick demonstration of the value of comparative cross-cultural naturalistic ethics. The theme of part 2, “First Nature,” is the origins of moral virtue. Flanagan sketches the “sprout” theory developed by the classical Chinese philosopher Mencius (chapter 3). Human beings, according to this view, are born with four buds or dispositions that in the “normative force field” of a “preexisting but ever changing cultural ecology” (93) blossom into the Confucian virtues ren (benevolence), yi (righteousness), li (ritual propriety), and zhi (practical wisdom).

Flanagan then connects the sprout theory to psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s moral modularity hypothesis, which postulates five modules (chapters 4 and 5). Sprouts and modules are then brought to bear on moral emotions, and again Western (P.F. Strawson) and non-Western (16th century Korean neo-Confucians) perspectives are engaged (chapter 6). While much of the exposition in this section is detailed, the discussion never becomes pedantic or dense. Testimony to Flanagan’s skillful handling of his material, readers not only move deftly along, but also (in many cases, I imagine) learn something new—for me, it was the four-seven debate in 16th century Korea (113–18).

In part 3, “Collisions,” Flanagan considers the objection that the moral cartography practiced in the preceding part yields only a descriptive—or normatively inert—inventory of moral forms of life. This is a relativist objection insofar as its lead argument is the idea of incommensurable moral values. According to this line of reasoning, if moral values are indeed incommensurable, comparison and evaluation are then ruled out on the grounds of sheer impossibility. Flanagan responds to this objection by concentrating on anger, and righteous anger in particular (chapter 7). Like cholesterol, anger comes in good and bad forms. Bad anger is destructive, both to oneself and others. Good anger—sometimes called righteous anger—is considered in many quarters morally required. How could a morally mature individual not feel righteous anger toward gross acts of injustice? Modern Westerners believe fervently that anger is normal, even healthy. We are, Flanagan tells us, “anger aficionados” (178).

In contrast, we find the Buddhist Śāntideva and the Stoic Seneca, both of whom agree not only that destructive anger is wrong and immoral, but also flatly deny the distinction between good and bad anger. All anger is wrong in their view (chapter 8). Both Śāntideva and Seneca agree that anger can be eliminated, and so both hold that it should be eliminated. Flanagan then considers challenges to their position: the psychological claim that eliminating anger is not possible (chapter 9), and then philosophical arguments claiming that even if extirpation were possible, it would result in nefarious consequences such as undermining commitments to justice (chapter 10).

In part 4, “Anthropologies,” Flanagan examines culturally diverse conceptions of moral selves. He develops a typology of twelve different self-variations, all of which embed various metaphysical, epistemic, moral, and aesthetic considerations that coalesce into a wide range of empirical forms of life (chapter 11). He then closes out his discussion by considering how moral education—“soul making” in the words of Kwame Anthony Appiah—is conducted and should be facilitated in an age of pluralistic moral cosmopolitanism (chapter 12). 

Throughout The Geography of Morals, Flanagan makes his arguments in favor of integrating particular cultural practices and concrete ways of life with moral theory. In doing so, he makes the value of moral possibility clear in two ways. First, moral possibility qua the recognition of alterity is good in itself. Second, moral possibility is valuable instrumentally insofar as it promotes better normative thinking that is empirically grounded in both science and cultural diversity. Flanagan also refutes the concern that moral possibility necessarily leads to moral relativism. Utilizing arguments made by MacIntyre in Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, his treatment of righteous anger shows that incommensurability does not necessary entail incomparability. If comparison is a live option, then normative evaluation is at least a possibility.

Flanagan seems content to leave normative evaluation as a possibility. While he seems sympathetic to the Buddhist/Stoic position regarding anger, in the end he expresses ambivalence rather than judgment. While he demonstrates that normative evaluation is possible, I wonder if the correlative argument—moral possibility does not necessarily require normative evaluation—is likewise sound. Alternatively, do moral philosophers of the kind endorsed by Flanagan need to evaluate normatively to show moral possibility at its fullest? This question aside, The Geography of Morals is an excellent example of multidisciplinary, comparative, cross-cultural moral philosophy in action. I highly recommend it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Stephen Dawson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Lynchburg.

Date of Review: 
January 23, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Owen Flanagan was born and raised in Westchester County, New York. He is the author of the classics Varieties of Moral Personality (1991) and Consciousness Reconsidered (1992). He lives in Durham, NC, where he is currently James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy and Co-director of the Center for Comparative Philosophy at Duke University.




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