Introduction: Morality in a Realistic Spirit

Andrew Gleeson, Craig Taylor

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


In her chapter for this collection, Cora Diamond quotes a remark of Allen Tate: "poetry, perhaps more than any other art, tests with experience the illusions that the human predicament tempts us to believe." Diamond takes a view of philosophy-inherited from her greatest influence, Ludwig Wittgenstein-which sees it as unusually liable (among all the intellectual traditions which make up our disciplinary inheritance) to succumb to those illusions, and to articulate them in a highly abstract form. Thus, for example, people may in certain moods (which can become chronic) feel estranged from the world, and from their human fellows-and philosophy elaborates these experiences as doctrines of skepticism, and thereby distorts them, not by making them objects of reflection (which is perfectly legitimate) but by turning reflection away from the experiences and on to a reified metaphysical substitute for them, a habit which Stanley Cavell calls deflection. This process changes the nature of the reflection from a patient and sympathetic attempt inwardly to understand the human condition, to thought of a very different sort, the theoretical construction of an intellectual model, a form of thought which has its modern exemplar in science. To take a moral example, a human being may be deeply perplexed and disturbed in the face of a moral dilemma-a philosophical deflection of this converts it into impersonal speculation about which theory of how to behave (consequentialism, Kantianism, and so on) best meets criteria of intellectual merit, an approach which flourishes on caricatures of moral dilemmas like the trolley problem. Most of these deflections can be seen as mistaken attempts to meet a real need. One such need arises from the powerful bewilderment and sense of impotence we can experience in the face of catastrophic evils that seem to defy comprehension and to threaten morality (or even rationality) as an institution for guidance through life. That threat to the pretensions of morality (so conceived at least) is one of the deepest lessons that such life experiences have to offer. But philosophy’s deflecting response has too often been to shore morality up, to try and minimize the bewilderment (or even to dispel it as mere weakness, the limits to human rationality) by contending that evils like the Holocaust, or our systematic, industrial-level cruelty 2to animals-both are cases Diamond has discussed-are in principle perfectly well understood in terms of familiar and relatively straightforward notions like sentience, rationality, flourishing, and so on. As Craig Taylor explains in a chapter elucidating the realistic spirit and exploring what it might mean in ethics, moral philosophies that put these concepts at their heart are in fact evasions of difficult realities. Their own apparent hard-headed realism-no obscure nonsense here please!-is a failure of nerve in the face of (as Taylor, paraphrasing Diamond puts it) the resistance reality sometimes puts up to our thinking it, the felt inadequacy of our concepts to encompass certain experiences. Taylor notes that this sense of thought’s defeat by reality is also found in the experience of great goodness or beauty. David Macarthur takes up Cavell’s idea of deflection explicitly, discussing it (as does Taylor) with special reference to Diamond’s seminal paper "The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy." The difficulty of philosophy is to avoid deflection, to learn how not to convert profound human life experiences into over-intellectualized theoretical conundrums. Philosophers produce moral arguments that rely on a purportedly universal logic, employing concepts like sentience, personhood, and so on that are designed to compel conclusions. Examples are familiar to any philosopher: animals are sentient, therefore they have certain rights; fetuses are not self-conscious, therefore they lack certain other rights. Diamond, in contrast, believes that such arguments are of avail only inside "moral communities" that already share a substantial moral outlook. Discussion between different communities-between meat eaters and vegetarians, say-must proceed very differently. Macarthur contends it has to proceed through an inescapably first-person articulation of personal experience, which makes its language and sensibility deeply akin to that of literature, art, and criticism, in which forms of thought the deepening of understanding is never exhausted.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMorality in a Realistic Spirit
Subtitle of host publicationEssays for Cora Diamond
EditorsAndrew Gleeson, Craig Taylor
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherRoutledge, Taylor & Francis
Number of pages11
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-351-06430-9
ISBN (Print)978-1-138-47996-8, 9781138479968
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2019

Publication series

NameRoutledge Studies in Ethics and Moral Theory


  • Introduction
  • Cora Diamond
  • moral philosophy


Dive into the research topics of 'Introduction: Morality in a Realistic Spirit'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this