Of Balloons and Bicycles or the Relationship between Ethical Theory and Practical Judgment

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The relationship between ethical theory and practical judgment is not a happy or a stable one; while the two live together in some fashion, the terms of the cohabitation are not clear to most interested observers. I have to wonder what it is that most of us see as the signs of instability. As I reflect on this I direct your attention to the photo (opposite) of a wire sculpture presented to me by one of my students some years ago. It depicts a hot-air balloon, made from a toilet float, and a small tricycle sitting on the ground beneath the balloon. Let us suppose the tricycle is a proper, cross-country conveyance-a bicycle, in fact-and the image will serve nicely as a simile for the relationship between theory and practical judgment: the bicycle is like practical judgment, the hot-air balloon is like ethical theory.

By theory, I mean any collection of meaningful assertions, descriptions, and explanations that attempt to give a big picture" about moral beliefs, attitudes, and behavior, a picture big enough that by looking intently at it, one can answer all the tough questions that seem important to the proponent of the theory. I refer to the grand theories contrived by thinkers from ancient times to today: Plato's Ideas, Aristotle's Telos, Augustine's Two Cities, St. Thomas's Natural Law, Luther's Two Kingdoms, Hobbes's State of Nature, Spinoza's Ethica More Geometrico, Locke's Contract, Kant's Categorical Imperative, Bentham and Mills's Utility, Rawls's Original Position, and so forth and so on. Obviously, each of these is radically different from the others; yet all are attempts to paint a picture with a set of ideas that is big enough and profound enough to make intellectual sense of the moral life, at least to the proponents and because the proponents wrote these ideas in books) to those everywhere and anywhere who read their books.

I want this simile of balloon and bicycle to make four points. The first point is that the philosophical problem of the relationship between theory and practice is much older than hot-air balloons and bicycles, one of which was invented in the eighteenth century and the other in the nineteenth. Plato worried about the problem and he elegantly describes it in the sixth book of the Republic, where he depicts those who have "the perfect vision [the word is theoria the 'vision thing' disdained by presidents and delighting philosophers] of the other world that orders the laws about beauty, goodness and justice in this world" (6.484). Aristotle struggled with the problem: the sixth book of the Nichomachean Ethics distinguishes theoretical wisdom sophia) from practical wisdom (phronesis) by noting that the philosophers Anaxagoras and Thales had sophia "of extraordinary, wonderful, difficult and superhuman things, but such knowledge is useless because the good they are seeking is not human. Phronesis, on the other hand, is concerned with human affairs and with matters about which deliberation is possible" (6.11411b). As he was about to embark on his great study of moral behavior, St. Thomas slyly remarked, "Sermones morales universales sunt minus utiles, eo quod actiones sunt in particularibus", (Summa Theologica 2-2ae). His teaching about the relation between moral scientia of principles and the practical judgment of prudence was debated by his followers for several centuries. Thus, the problem is not at all new, not at all simple: who am I to write anything new or simple about it in the next few lines?

The second point is this: from the balloon one gets a wide view of the landscape, and the horizons are far and on all sides. From the bicycle, one sees only the bumpy road ahead, the fallen tree limbs, and the dogs in the bushes. Theory, in this view, is a speculative fashioning of the scope of human life or action. It is very loosely tethered to the ground and can float quite free. It knows very little about the trials and dangers, thrills and fun of riding the bicycle, because it sees the details of human life only from a great distance, and often not at all. …