Chancellor's Office

Honors Convocation


Moral Reasoning and Moral Philosophy

It is a real pleasure to be invited to celebrate with you this important moment of recognition in your academic lives. I hope that you will take real pride in this accomplishment, and all your accomplishments during your years at UM-Dearborn.

A great deal of your time in the past several years has been spent on focused study within your fields of specialization. As most of you approach the end of your time at UM-Dearborn, however, I would like to reflect with you about what it is “to live well” as a citizen of the world, a member of a family, and an adult of principle and integrity. I come to you as a philosopher, and one who is especially interested in verifying and testing the connections that ought to exist between philosophy and practical life--science, politics, and ordinary life choices. I come as well to advocate a specific approach to one’s life: to be thoughtful, to be deliberative about one’s choices and one’s character; to make choices in life that embody  one’s own sense of integrity; and to recognize that one’s choices ultimately define one’s character.

I want to begin by noting that the problems of ethics and values can be approached from two distinct angles of view: from the stance of professional philosophy, and from the stance of ordinary reflective individual life choices. Philosophers--Mill, Kant, Aristotle, Rawls, Nietzsche, Plato, for example--have devoted their professional lives to attempting to arrive at full and systematic answers to profound ethical questions: What, if anything, is intrinsically good? What is justice? What are the duties of an ordinary person? What are the duties of a saint? Are there definitive answers to any ethical questions? Are there definitive answers to all ethical questions? These are important questions, and the answers that ethicists have provided shed much light. This is the academic discipline of ethics, analogous in some ways to the
academic disciplines of mathematics or sociology.

But equally important is the situation of the ordinary person within the context of complex moral conflicts. For example:

  • What is involved in leading a morally responsible life in adulthood?
  • What do I owe my community?
  • In what ways should I privilege my own family over the interests of others?
  • How can we balance the demands of self with the demands of others?
  • Is there a difference between omission and commission in the situation of assigning harms?
  • What obligations of citizenship and community do we have?

I want to say several things about the situation of the ordinary moral reasoner and actor, and then ask how philosophy helps. (Notice how these nouns denote as well two distinct activities: thinking and acting. This is significant.) First, the moral problems of practical life are intellectually hard. Decision-making is always difficult, and ethical decisions are especially so.

Consider the range of challenges: sorting through the factual details of a given moral situation, identifying the principles which appear to apply, recognizing the conflicts that arise among
principles, exploring the range of exceptions that seem appropriate for those principles, and confronting the task of weighting the significance of various morally important goods--all this takes all the intellectual skills that we have honed through our undergraduate and graduate educations. To be a wise agent is an enormous intellectual challenge. Finding a solution for a concrete moral dilemma may be as intellectually challenging as finding a solution to a complex engineering problem, writing a poem, or drafting a piece of legislation. 

Second, the moral problems of practical life are difficult at the level of what I will call personal agency. Even once having arrived at a conviction, or considered judgment, about how to act in a given situation, does not guarantee that one will in fact act accordingly. Think of some familiar internal obstacles to principled action:


  • Weakness of the will--a person’s inability to carry through with a given course of action;
  • Self-deception and rationalization--a person’s concealment of an action’s significance from him or herself;
  • Impulse--a person’s acting on the basis of non-rational wishes or desires rather than considered motives;
  • The power of self-interest in governing the will;
  • Ffailure of empathy;
  • Special pleading--rules don’t apply to these particular circumstances

These points add up to a simple and familiar one--choosing the moral course and acting upon it is hard, for reasons that are both external (obstacles in the world) and internal (obstacles within the self).

This is the point at which I think we can usefully return to philosophy and to philosophical ethics. If philosophical ethics were a purely academic pursuit (perhaps like game theory or natural history) then it would have nothing to contribute to the problems of practical ethical life. It would function as a dispassionate and formal discipline which moves forward through a series of puzzles and conceptual problems. And sometimes philosophical ethics functions in just this way (I think of long stretches of the early part of this century in which meta-ethics dominated substantive ethical reasoning). However, the two perspective--professional and ordinary--are not generally distinct in this way in the case of ethics. Ordinary moral life is best conducted through reflective thought and extensive consideration of ourselves within the broader circumstances of social life in which we find ourselves. We are self  constituting through thought and commitment in ways that are unique in the natural world. And this project requires philosophy, in several ways.

First, we need to reflect on principles--“treat others as ends, not merely as means” or “act so as to produce the greatest happiness” or “honor your promises”. We need to have some idea of how we rank these various principles. We need to consider the limits of the principles, and the range of exceptional circumstances that appear salient. And we need to ask whether there are principles which stand in possession of strong justification, strong grip on our actions and commitments; and what would count as such justification.

Likewise, we need to reflect on values--the things that matter intrinsically, and the things that matter instrumentally. My own happiness and health are of value. The health and happiness of others is of value. A harmonious society is of value. (Instrumentally or intrinsically?) The preservation of the natural environment is of value. (Likewise, instrumentally or intrinsically?) Consider other values that we probably celebrate: career, family, friendship, intellectual satisfaction, ... Are there general answers to the question, what is of inherent value?

This intellectual challenge of sorting out the terrain of the practical and the ethical is one to which philosophical ethics has a major contribution. Plato’s insistence on the examined life; Aristotle’s deep exploration of human happiness; Kant’s arguments for the categorical imperative (“act in such a way that your maxim can be universalized”); Mill’s deft treatment of the principle of utility--the genius of these philosophers is that they have identified some of the critical elements of the ethical conditions of human life. And we, in thinking through their reasoning and concepts, come to a richer self-understanding and a better recognition of the terrain as well. We construct ourselves by thinking through these rich complexities.

This is familiar; it doesn’t differ enormously from the advantage the homeowner derives from study of the gifted architect or civil engineer. That is: the theorizing from the professional discipline sheds light on the practical conduct of similar activities. But philosophical ethics offers a second, and more distinctive, advantage: the process of philosophizing about ethical matters actually extends our moral imagination and our capacity for moral reasoning. To explore Aristotle’s conception of happiness is not merely to acquire a new set of intellectual tools and concepts; it is to extend one’s own self into new areas. When I take Aristotle’s point that happiness is not a feeling, but a temporally extended structure of life experience--this leads me to think about my own life in a different way. It emphasizes the importance of plans, of the orchestration of one’s fundamental values, the tiling of activities over time, and the importance of recognizing the significance of fortune or chance in happiness. (If we dwelt instead on Bentham’s conception of happiness--the positive balance of pleasure over pain--we would be led to live in very different ways, giving greater priority to the present over the future, and emphasizing pleasure over more complex sources of satisfaction.) In other words: philosophy helps one live, by providing more chambers in the mind in terms of which to think, reflect, plan, aspire, and act.

Third, I suggest that real engagement with philosophical ethics is a partial response to the failures of practical agency listed above. Serious engagement is philosophical issues provide one with resources of will and character that assist in acting wisely. If we understand the problem of weakness of the will, we may be more able to win the interior dialogue we have with ourselves about the next cigarette. If we take a broader view of a human life--one extended over a natural lifetime, rather than a series of moments--we may be more able to recognize the importance of principles in regulating our choices in successive moments. If we recognize the real human existence of others--the reality of the pain, aspiration, and interests of the other--we may be more moved by the impulse of altruism even when it conflicts with self-interest. And so forth--the upshot is that philosophical ethics can also serve as a kind of existential “cement” through which the individual’s commitments become more binding through reflection.

Allow me to illustrate the potential fecundity of the intersection of philosophy and practical life by focusing on a single problem: the problem of egoism and altruism--decision-making based on the interests of self, versus the interests of others. There is a (forgive the expression) sophomoric assumption that people sometimes make, that egoism and self-interest are the “natural” or even inevitable bases of decision-making. In choosing, it is said, one always favors his or her own interests. But more critical inspection suggests a more complex story. First, is it so clear that there is a sharp distinction between self-interest and the perception of the interests of others? Amartya Sen argues for the notion that there is something more like a continuum of interests, from purely private, to familial, to village or lineage, to nation, to global. And he argues that every individual possesses commitments that go beyond narrow self-interest. As he puts it: “The purely economic man is indeed close to being a social moron” (Sen 1982:99). Another important contribution comes from Thomas Nagel, writing on the concept of altruistic motivation. He argues that altruism is a condition of rationality or even sanity: the egoist is to practical life as the solipsist is to scientific life. To attend only to one’s own private interests is to fail to recognize the reality of other people’s interests; and to recognize the reality of another person’s interests is to have some practical impulse to act out of regard for those interests.

Where this takes us is to a more nuanced conception of ourselves as moral and practical agents: agents with a broad range of interests and commitments, agents capable of recognizing the reality of others, and persons with the practical ability to assess competing concerns, 7 interests, and principles, and come to conclusions about the best course of action, all things considered. And philosophical reflection serves to do more than simply describe or categorize this sort of process; by leading us to see and grapple with greater complexity, it leads us to be richer moral reasoners. Parenthetically, I might point out that the study of great literature does the very much the same: it exposes us in a vivid, forceful way to complexities of human motivation and commitment that extend our own moral capacities.)

The point I would like to emphasize is that reflection on moral and value issues will always be important for you, and it will always be hard. It is hard, in part, because it is often difficult to sort out the issues and considerations that seem relevant to a moral choice. But more deeply, it is hard because our moral imaginations sometimes seem to require us to do things that are risky, or contrary to our interests, or contrary to the interests of those we love. And, finally, there is no sharp line between ordinary moral reflection, on the one hand, and critical moral philosophizing, on the other.

Once again I congratulate you on the very significant academic achievements for which you are recognized this evening. This is a challenging place, and you should take real pride in the successes you have attained here. I urge upon you the same seriousness of purpose and selfdiscipline that you have shown in your studies, as you move into the next stage of your lives. And I hope I leave you as well with a lively sense of the importance of moral, political, and social values as you make the choices which will continue to define you as human beings and citizens of the world in the 21st century.

Congratulations to each of you, and best wishes from me and from the University of Michigan-Dearborn.