Theoretical Commitments

I have long thought of myself as something of an agnostic on matters of moral theory.

From the beginning I have concerned myself with practical decision-making, first with environmental ethics and policy and more recently with engineering ethics. I am now mainly concerned with how best to teach ethics to undergraduate students in engineering degree programs. In those efforts, I have come to think of moral theories as resources for ordinary practical decision-making, lenses through which to see ordinary basic values of one kind or another.

I could, I have thought, go on using these frameworks, playing them one against the other in expanding and enriching the variety of values taken into account in any decision, without committing myself to any one of them. As a teacher, I have thought I could offer the frameworks to students with complete neutrality, allowing them to figure out for themselves how to balance one kind of value against another. It is not for me to indoctrinate them, after all.

As I am, after a quarter century, re-reading MacIntyre’s After Virtue, I begin to see that such a neutral perspectivism is untenable. In fact, telling myself I am neutral among perspectives is simply false: everything I do has a frame and a direction, based on a particular – though still developing – understanding of human cognition and of the ends of human life in the world.For one thing, neutral perspectivism is – or pretends to be – ahistorical. I have been presenting utility theory, autonomy theory and virtue ethics as though they are somehow all on a par, all equally worthy of attention and choice. They developed in and in response to very different historical contexts, though, and the scope and limitations of each is shaped by the concerns and the biases and the characteristic blind-spots of its time.

(As MacIntyre would have it, utility and autonomy are part of the same project of modernity – a project doomed to fail – standing in sharp contrast to the older, more coherent tradition of virtue ethics.)

The truth is that I don’t even regard the three with neutral dispassion. I have long thought the language of utility to be starkly impoverished, the language of autonomy more appealing but somehow still cold and abstract.

The deeper truth is that, behind the neutral perspectivism and pragmatism I present in my course design and in the developing Field Guide, there lies a commitment to something very much like virtue ethics.

I have not yet worked through all the contours of those commitments, but I can give the general outlines here, as a kind of rough draft and first declaration.

I am concerned with the nature of human moral cognition, which now seems to me the search for an updated account of practical wisdom, the unifying intellectual virtue of Aristotle’s approach. Moral imagination is part of the updated account, the habits of attentiveness and responsiveness I have sought to cultivate in myself and in others.

My approach is and long has been developmental. The whole idea is to cultivate moral imagination, to enrich it, and so to make ourselves better than we have been. It also matters very much how human cognitive capacities develop over time, from childhood through adulthood into age, and how conditions can be set for the early and sure emergence of practical wisdom.

Somewhere in all this is a vision of the ends of human life in the world, that toward which we aspire and strive. I think it possible to frame these ends in broad and generous terms, allowing for lots of local and individual variation, without letting go of the idea that humans do have a shared goal to which to aspire – a vocation, perhaps – and that it involves becoming ever more attentive and responsive to one another, and carrying forward the project of civilization.

I suppose my approach is at some level eudaimonistic, in some expansive sense of the term.

My approach also, to echo Julia Annas, emphasizes a need for a “commitment to goodness” (Annas 2011, p.102). What is most admirable to me is a dedication always to become better than we have been, a deep and intrinsic motivation to become more decent, more attentive, more creative, more caring.

Now, within that broad framework, the use of various moral theories as a toolbox does have its place. The tradition of moral philosophy, with all its false starts and diversions and blind alleys does provide tools for seeing and responding to a wide range of values. Moral imagination may be fed by learning to notice that someone may be better off or worse off as the consequence of a particular action or practice, or how someone’s capacity to make independent choices may be supported or thwarted, and to see why those things matter.

But, I begin to understand, the end in view, the frame of the whole thing, is the development and enrichment of moral imagination as a kind of practical wisdom, in service to the development of good character and a good human life.


Annas, J. (2011). Intelligent Virtue. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

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