Book Club: Practical Philosophy — 1 — What is practical philosophy?

Massimo Pigliucci
Aug 27 · 10 min read
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Time to get started on another book, folks! I propose four sessions on John Haldane’s Practical Philosophy: Ethics, Society and Culture (St. Andrews Studies in Philosophy and Public Affairs, 2009). Haldane is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

According to Martha Nussbaum’s endorsement of the book, “Haldane eloquently makes the case for an approach to ethics that is distinctively practical — thought with a view to action (as contrasted with theoretical thought that might possibly be applied to the domain of action). For his part, Alasdair MacIntyre writes: “What resources can philosophy bring to bear, when its enquiries are not theoretical, but practical? In Practical Philosophy Haldane answers this question in a brilliant survey of key issues, showing us how a variety of theories can obscure or distort our view of the practical realities of life, family, and society. With admirable clarity he also shows us how philosophy can rescue us from such theorizing.”

It’s not an easy book, though it can be approached by someone with no background in philosophy. And some of the positions Haldane takes are most definitely controversial, against the background of a number of contemporary discourses in practical ethics. But that, of course, is what makes the book interesting.

I propose four discussions. Today we begin with the introduction, on the broad question of what practical philosophy is. Next time we’ll tackle chapter 1, Haldane’s introduction to practical ethics. In the third installment we’ll look at chapter 7, on families and why they matter. We’ll then conclude with chapter 12, on private life and public culture. I chose these sections because they are representative of Haldane’s approach, as well as — in my opinion — intrinsically interesting. Others may have made different choices, for instance focusing on political theory and the nature of persons (chapter 8), public reason, truth and human fellowship (chapter 10), or cultural theory and the study of human affairs (chapter 14). There is a lot of material in this book, and you won’t regret engaging with it.

Haldane begins with a brief historical survey of the very concept of practical philosophy. He notes this quote from Herodotus’ Histories, a phrase allegedly spoken by Croesus to the legendary Athenian legislator Solon:

“Stranger of Athens, we have heard much of your wisdom (sophie) and of your travels through many lands, from love of knowledge (hos philosopheon) and a wish to see and examine the countries of the world.”

This is likely the very first time in history — fifty years before Plato’s Republic and eighty years before Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics — that the word philosophy is used to indicate a desire to understand human life. Nevertheless, what Haldane identifies as “wisdom literature” actually goes further back, to ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, cultural traditions that later influenced both the Greeks and the Hebrews.

But the turning point was surely Socrates and his famous method of the elenchus, or dialectical inquiry, as illustrated in both Plato’s dialogues and Xenophon’s Memorabilia. Socrates is often accused of never actually advancing his own point of view, but always questioning (and often implicitly ridiculing) other people’s opinions. This, Haldane reminds us, is simply not true, as evidenced by the following quotation from Plato’s Republic:

“I will make no secret of my own conviction, which is that injustice is not more profitable than justice, even when left free to work its will unchecked.” (345a)

The Socratic turn is the beginning of practical philosophy, as Haldane puts it, in the sense of being concerned with questions of what one ought to do as an occupant of some social role, or more generally with how one ought to live as a human being. Shortly thereafter, Aristotle introduced a formal distinction between speculative thinking (theôrêtikê dianoia) and practical thinking (praktikê dianoia), where speculative thinking is aimed at knowing the true, while practical thinking is aimed at achieving the good.

From there, Haldane jumps to Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages, and then to the early modern era. In 1703 Christian Wolff completed a doctoral dissertation at the University of Leipzig entitled “On Universal Practical Philosophy, Composed from the Mathematical Method.” He sent a copy of it to Leibniz, who then in turn used the expression “practical philosophy,” likely influencing both Kant and Hegel.

However, by then philosophy was already turning into a specialized analytical field, with increasingly less interest in Aristotle’s practical thinking. So much so that George Berkeley wrote in a footnote to his A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge (1710) that “One may make a great progress in school ethics, without ever being the wiser or better man for it, or knowing how to behave himself, in the affairs of life, more to the advantage of himself, or his neighbor, than he did before.”

Indeed, recent research clearly indicates that professors of moral philosophy are not, on average, more ethical than other academics (though, I suppose, the good news is that neither are they less ethical!). This would have stunned Socrates, Aristotle, and the Stoics. That said, the eclipse of practical philosophy in favor of questions concerning the metaphysic and epistemology of morals ended — according to Haldane — with two towering figures of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy: Elizabeth Anscombe in the UK and John Rawls in the US.

Anscombe got things started as an undergraduate in 1939, with her co-authorship (with Norman Daniel, another undergraduate student) of a pamphlet entitled “The war and the moral law.” Then, in 1956, she publicly opposed the conferment of an honorary degree by Oxford University to President Truman, on the ground that Truman had ended the war by massacring the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To honor him, would have been, as she put it, to “‘share in the guilt of a bad action by praise and flattery.” This was eminently practical philosophy of the kind that the ancient Greco-Romans would have felt right at home with.

Rawls’ major contribution to practical philosophy was his 1971 A Theory of Justice, which was published at a time when the anti-Vietnam movement was at its strongest, the US had seen a decade of race riots, students had just been killed by American soldiers at Kent State, and the Roe v Wade decision on abortion rights was only two years into the future. No time for metaphysics and epistemology indeed!

Haldane at this point moves to more meaty philosophical matters, tackling what he considers two challenges to the very notion of practical philosophy: the relativist challenge, and the determinist one. Let’s begin with relativism, or ethical subjectivism.

The challenge lies in the fact that in order to pursue practical moral philosophy one assumes that there are such things as moral truths, of a kind, or some version of objective goodness for human beings. If that is a mistake, as a number of contemporary authors maintain, then ethics becomes more a matter of psychology than philosophy (which is exactly the, misguided in my opinion, suggestion of some social psychologists, such as Jonathan Haidt).

The subjectivist challenge is rooted in the writings of David Hume, who introduced both the fact/value and the is/ought distinctions in modern philosophy. Concerning the first (fact/value) distinction, Hume wrote:

“Take any action allowed to be vicious: willful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In whichever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action. Here is a matter of fact; but it is the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it.” (A Treatise of Human Nature, book III, part I, section 1)

He then goes on to tackle the second distinction, the is/ought one:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it is necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.” (ibid.)

The way to “resist” (in philosophical jargon) Hume’s arguments is, in my mind, exactly the one charted by Haldane. Concerning the fact/value distinction, Hume doesn’t “find” values when he examines “actions allowed to be vicious” because his taxonomy of facts is too limited. He famously said that there are only two kinds of facts: empirical ones (to be known a posteriori) or “relations of ideas,” that is, mathematical and logical constructs (to be known a priori). He went so far as to suggest that if a book does not contain either then it ought (ah!) to be burned, because it concerns itself with nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Thankfully, people have not taken Hume’s advice, or his own books — which do not contain either empirical facts or mathematical-logical constructs — would have been burned, and philosophy would have lost a great thinker. So, values do “exist,” in the sense that they are a particular kind of human judgments. The question, though, is whether such judgments should have the force of moral imperatives.

Which is how we get to the second distinction made by Hume: between “is” and “ought.” The above quoted passage is often interpreted as Hume saying that it is inconceivable that one could bridge that gap, because, plainly, facts do not dictate anything, they just are. Haldane responds, and I go along with him here, that the is/ought gap disappears if one adopts an ethical position within the broad family known as ethical naturalism, as Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and the Christian Thomas Aquinas have done.

From this perspective, what is morally good is whatever allows human beings to flourish (Aristotle) or to live a life worth living (the Stoics), and what is morally vicious is whatever gets in the way of such life. The specifics, of course, depend on one’s views on human nature, which is what distinguishes the different Hellenistic schools of virtue ethics.

Now to the second (alleged) challenge to practical ethics: determinism. Here my own ideas diverge sharply from Haldane’s, as I will explain in a moment. Haldane is referring to the well known problem of free will: for me to be an agent capable of making choices assumes that at any moment I could choose to do otherwise. But such a conception of human agency has come under heavy fire in modern times, largely because of the scientific view that everything in the universe is caused by something antecedent. If my “choice” of, say, chocolate rather than vanilla gelato is connected to the Big Bang by an unbroken chain of cause-effect relations, then in what sense is it “my” choice, regardless of how powerfully it may seem so to me at a psychological level?

The three standard alternative accounts here are:

(I) Hard determinism, which accepts that we live in a deterministic universe governed by relations of cause-effect and concludes that we do not, in fact, have free will.

(II) Libertarianism, or contra-causal free will: since free will exists, determinism must be wrong.

(III) Compatibilism, which accepts the deterministic premise, but goes on to argue that what makes my decisions mine is that they are arrived at, in part, through internal causal mechanisms (i.e., my will, my volition, or whatever you wish to call it).

I am on record as being a compatibilist, which is the same position adopted both by the Stoics and by a number of modern philosophers like Dan Dennett. I consider hard determinism a practically untenable position: not even the most convinced hard determinists can bring themselves to act in line with their philosophy (of course they would argue that they can’t do anything but not act that way). And I regard contra-causal free will (which is rooted in the Christian tradition) as an appeal to miracles.

Haldane’s position is interesting, if ultimately unworkable, in my opinion:

“The claim that an event is either determined or random (in the sense of unconditioned chance) remains an assertion which nowadays lacks even the support (apparently) once given it by physical theory. Clearly these are contrary predicates: something cannot be both determined and random; but it has to be shown that they are contradictories: that it is not possible that something may be neither, that there is no tertium quid. However, and quite independently of the issue of human action, physical theory no longer holds that all causation conforms to exceptionless laws, but now regards sequences of events at the microphysical level as conforming to patterns that are precisely instances of non-determined, non-random behavior. This is because it views them as possessing indeterminate probabilities.”

I think Haldane here is misunderstanding physical theory. He seems to be playing on the fact that quantum mechanics — one of the two dominant theories in physics, together with general relativity — is a deterministic theory, and yet, empirically speaking, the phenomena it describes appear not to be deterministic, but rather to follow certain probability distributions.

But this will not help him. First off, quantum mechanics is already recognized as not being the end of the line, meaning that it is not the most fundamental theory of how the world works. That theory hasn’t been worked out yet. We know that it is possible because quantum mechanics contradicts general relativity in certain domains of applications, indicating that these two theories are either incorrect or incomplete. Second, regardless of how things will work out at the most fundamental level, no scientist in her right mind would deny the universality of cause-effect in our universe. Which leaves only hard determinism and compatibilism as options on the table.

(Next time: practical ethics)

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in…

Massimo Pigliucci

Written by

Ethics, general philosophy, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

Massimo Pigliucci

Written by

Ethics, general philosophy, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

A Philosopher’s Stone

A place for a discussion of the ideas all around us in society, culture, philosophy, and more.

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