Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Fooling Oneself: Comments on Moeller's The Moral Fool

Hans-Georg Moeller's recent book, The Moral Fool, just earned a harsh review from Michael Slater at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. And indeed, the book is bound to irritate the typical hard-working academic philosopher. The arguments are loose. Moeller's position is stated unclearly and it seems to shift around. Hardly any of the relevant literature is cited. Seen in one way, pretty much every criticism in Slater's review is on the mark. This is not a good piece of academic scholarship.

Thus, I recommend reading this book not as a piece of academic scholarship. Read it instead as an evocative diatribe, which is probably closer to Moeller's intention in writing it. Revel in its colorful prose, its iconoclasm, its anti-authoritarianism. Moeller's guiding idea is that morality, or moral discourse, or moral thinking -- try not to distinguish too precisely among these or you'll start to get frustrated -- makes the world a worse place. It is mostly a sham, a cover-up, a failure, an excuse for violence against people, post-hoc self-serving rationalization or rationalization of one's cultural prejudices. That's a thought, or a cluster of thoughts, or a broad attitude, worth some consideration -- worth more consideration than ethicists generally give it. Moeller plays around with those ideas and presents various thoughts that resonate in various ways with them.

My reactions to the book, using the approach I just described, are here. I'll be presenting these thoughts in an Author-Meets-Critics session on the book at the end of the month at the Pacific APA meeting in San Francisco.

Section ii of my comments may have some interest even to people unfamiliar with Moeller's book. It summarizes my current thinking about whether explicit moral reflection is, on average, an instrumentally good thing. The issue is, I fear, not as clear cut as one might hope.

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