April Bernard on Margaret Drabble as Moral Psychologist

In reviewing a selection of Margaret Drabble‘s novels, April Bernard writes:

Drabble, as a moralist, seems to believe that it is less important what and why we do what we do, than how we think about it—before, during, after….If the reason that a man always sins is that he is sinful, what matters can only be what he does, spiritually, with these hard facts.

“What we do” i.e., our actions. “Why we do what we do” i.e., the reasons for our actions. Agents’ reasons–their beliefs and desires–are the causes for their actions. And then, finally, “how we think about what we do”–before, during, after–our beliefs about our actions and their reasons, introspectively and retrospectively.

I do not know if Bernard intends to describe Drabble’s views of moral psychology as being a paradigmatic instance of what moralists do, or whether she is taking her stance as a particularly idiosyncratic one. Be that as it may, it is interesting to consider a moralist as being more concerned with our reasoning about our reasons for our actions than with our actions and our reasons for them.

Consider for instance, a putative rebel who consistently fails to file taxes on time and sometimes fails to do so altogether. A little introspection on his part reveals he does so because he believes that tax-collection authorities are instruments of oppression and thus want to let them know–however indirectly–that he cares little for their intrusion into his life.  For Drabble then, the failure to file taxes and the resentment of authority is not as interesting as the actual introspection indulged in by the agent.

The reasons for this should be evident: such introspection–prior to actions, concurrently and retrospectively–is bound to be interestingly revealing, a tapping into a rich mother lode of psychologically acute facts about oneself. Our rebel may find–when he commences his archaeological investigations, in guided or unguided form–that his resentment of authority stems from other deeply held beliefs, primeval in origin, shrouded perhaps by childhood amnesia. He might find that he does not derive as much pleasure as anticipated from the commission of his action, that indeed, while he delays his payment of taxes, he is gripped by acute anxiety and fear–while he resents authority he fears it even more. And lastly, he may discover that his actions, rather than leaving with flush with the glory of success, bring in their wake a curious emptiness.

The visible actions we take and our publicly professed reasons for doing so may then just be a kind of froth on the seemingly placid–and occasionally disturbed–surface of our beings; they are interesting precisely because they suggest we look deeper and wider. Perhaps we could find a broader pattern that indicts the same set of reasons and provokes the same kind of introspection, thus suggesting the fundamental importance of the issues brought to the forefront of our consciousness.

These closer looks at oneself thus may point to further avenues for exploration of that most uncharted land of all: our inner spaces of motivation and fear and pleasure.

 

Causation and the Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon

In reviewing Joel Greenberg‘s A Feathered River: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (Bloomsbury, 2014), and in particular in noting his analysis of the causes of the mass disappearance of the passenger pigeon, Elizabeth Kolbert writes:

[G]reenberg isn’t much interested in the mechanics of the bird’s extinction. Even if there was some other contributing factor, he observes, this doesn’t change the outcome, nor does it alter the moral calculus. Greenberg offers the analogy of a man who was pushed off a pier. If the man doesn’t know how to swim and ends up drowning, it might be said that the proximate cause of his death was his own ignorance (or lack of buoyancy). But, “culpability and the ultimate cause remain with the one who pushed.” [emphasis added]

 This example demonstrates well, I think, how causal analysis–and thus, the notion of “cause”–remains a pragmatic enterprise through and through. (The notion of an “ultimate cause” is incoherent, unfortunately.)

To see why, consider that despite being offered several “additional factors” that would explain the disappearance of the pigeons, Greenberg is interested in offering a story that has a conservationist moral: overhunting is a bad thing and ‘”conservation measures” can work.’ The various physical explanations offered–the size of pigeon flocks for instance–will not mesh with such a story and are therefore not suitable for consideration as causes. There is a “moral calculus” to be satisfied: for that, blame has to be assigned somewhere, and its subjects can only be agents of a kind. In this case, human ones.

Why would this be more satisfying for Greenberg? Well, the actions of humans are subject to discussion and critique; an assignment of blame and “culpability” and “responsibility” can provoke morally inflected discussion and lead to actions that can influence the relevant causal networks of humans and their actions in the right ways.

Greenberg’s example of the pier-pushing is interesting for just these reasons. We seek to prevent similar deaths from occurring in the future, so talk of lack of buoyancy will do little to help. However, a morally inflected discourse might. Thus, we assign blame to agents again, whose beliefs and desires were the causes for their actions. Pushing people off piers is a bad thing and should be thought of as such, and so on. We could complicate the picture too, by assigning some blame to those who did not build protective railings or put up warning signs about not getting too close to pier edges. And so on.

(Incidentally, note that we could indict the lack of buoyancy of the human body as a cause too, and use it to motivate early lessons in swimming, but as a culture, we think this will have less impact than socially norming the pushing of people off piers as a bad thing.  Thus, causal analysis in that direction is a non-starter.)

Our discovery of a cause is, more than anything else, an announcement about our ends and the actions we consider will best help us to attain them.