Is Love All You Need . . . to be Moral?

All You Need is Love, part 1

Planting a Seed. Philosopher Jonathan Dancy is a champion of an approach to ethics called "moral particularism." Here's the opening paragraph of Dancy's article about moral particularism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
“Moral Particularism, at its most trenchant, is the claim that there are no defensible moral principles, that moral thought does not consist in the application of moral principles to cases, and that the morally perfect person should not be conceived as the person of principle. There are more cautious versions, however. The strongest defensible version, perhaps, holds that though there may be some moral principles, still the rationality of moral thought and judgement in no way depends on a suitable provision of such things; and the perfectly moral judge would need far more than a grasp on an appropriate range of principles and the ability to apply them. Moral principles are at best crutches that a morally sensitive person would not require, and indeed the use of such crutches might even lead us into moral error.” (Jonathan Dancy, "Moral Particularism," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In 2010, Professor Dancy appeared on Craig Ferguson's show. CLICK HERE, and jump to 27:30.)
The Question. Having, I hope, planted the seed of this idea, "moral particularism," I ask that you move that idea to the back of your mind. We'll come back to it. I now turn to this question: Is it true that "all you need is love"?

The Beatles sang it, so it must be true, right? Perhaps not. They also sang, “I am the walrus,” “nothing is real,” “happiness is a warm gun,” and “we all live in a yellow submarine” – and arguably each of those claims is false. Still. "All you need is love" might be true.

I’m not so much interested in the point that you need other things like food, water, and shelter. The answer to that, I think, is that love -- that is, relationships of mutuality and care -- is the best way to ensure food, water, shelter. So through love you also get those other things. I want to look at the question not in terms of biological needs, but as an ethical question. Is love all you need as your guide for how to act? Or do you also -- or instead -- need moral principles to act rightly in the world?

We face ethical decisions:
Do I speak up, or remain quiet?
When is it time to put Mom in a nursing home – or time to "let go" of a child?
Am I prioritizing my time in a way that most benefits myself and others in the long run?
Is the comfort I get from bumping up the thermostat a couple degrees, or the enjoyment of eating meat worth the damage to the planet?
Does it really matter if my coffee is or isn’t fair trade, or if my shirt was or wasn’t made in a sweat shop, or if some product was or wasn’t tested on animals?

Whenever you choose to do, or not do, anything, there’s the question of whether that choice is the right one.

As we confront the issue of how we live our lives, we like to think we have moral principles that guide us. We imagine ourselves to be principled people. We would hate to be accused of being unprincipled. To live by principle seems an admirable thing. Moral principles keep you on the righteous straight and narrow irrespective of how you might feel about it. They don’t depend on your emotions. You don’t have to love your neighbor to know you shouldn’t steal from her. But on the other hand, if you do love your neighbor, do you need principles? That’s the philosophical question I want to look at today.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was a philosophy professor, so I'm happy to see that philosophy is enjoying some pop culture attention these days. And the pop culture example I’m going to talk about also happens to illustrate this issue of whether we need moral principles.

To begin. A couple weeks ago, I was Skyping with my son, John -- age 35, lives in DC. He said, “Have you seen this show, 'The Good Place'?

I said, “I’ve heard of it.”

He said, “Oh, Dad, you gotta watch this. This is the show for you. It’s got moral philosophers in it. You are this show's target audience.”

So in the last couple weeks, I streamed, “The Good Place” – all 26 half-hour chapters of the show’s two seasons. It’s about four people in the afterlife who are trying to become better people by studying ethics. Really. I'm not kidding. That’s actually what it’s about. They talk about Kant, Sartre, utilitarianism, Kierkegaard, John Rawls. They mention names and ideas of people you’d have to be a total philosophy nerd to have ever heard of: Philippa Foot, Jonathan Dancy, Tim Scanlon.

I love the concept, though I have to admit to you up front that, in fact, the premise is wrong. Studying ethics – moral philosophy – has no connection to being a better person. Studies of actual ethics professors show that they are not more likely to be courteous, more likely to vote, more likely to give to charities, more likely to be vegetarian, or less likely to slip into conferences without paying the conference dues than any other academic. In fact, ethics books were more likely to go missing from academic libraries when compared to other philosophy books matched in age and popularity.

That noted, the show's protagonists do confront moral dilemmas, and it's nice to see sitcom characters employing the vocabulary of moral philosophy as they wrestle with what to do.

NEXT: Lessons from "The Good Place"

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This is part 1 of 3 of "All You Need is Love"
See also
Part 2: A Time to Lie
Part 3: Moral Particularism and Love

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