Book Review: Fieldwork in Familiar Places: Morality, Culture, and Philosophy. By Michele M. Moody-Adams

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Issue Date
2000-04
Authors
Feleppa, Robert
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In this ambitious book, Moody-Adams aims to establish, as she says, “a plausible conception of moral objectivity” and to defend “a cautious optimism that moral philosophy can be an aid in serious, everyday moral inquiry” (1). This requires defeating an unjustified skepticism about the objectivity of moral theory engendered by, first, fundamental misunderstandings of the structure and purpose of ethical theory and, second, unjustified acceptance of various forms of moral relativism. The misunderstanding of ethical theory she attributes in large part to a “pervasive deference to natural science,” which inclines philosophers to mistakenly fault ethical theory for failing to meet epistemological standards appropriate to science and not to ethics (1). Meanwhile, relativism’s unjustified and harmful influence she attributes primarily to a notion of “culture” as a self-contained system that is resistant to the criticism and understanding of outsiders. The notion is not supported, she argues, by a consideration of ethnographic practice and, moreover, makes the very possibility of ethnography inexplicable. Her own position, which she terms “critical pluralism,” views ethics as primarily concerned with self-scrutiny and burdens the moral philosopher with gaining an interpretive understanding of our culturally informed self-conceptions. Thus moral philosophy must draw more than it typically does on a finer-grained analysis – or “thick description” (following Clifford Geertz and Michael Walzer) – of the social contexts in which ethical issues arise. Moral philosophy is less akin to science and more akin to “fieldwork in familiar places.” Her book exemplifies this analysis in that she engages “in what can be called ‘fieldwork’ in the complex intellectual culture from which all these misconceptions emerge: a scrutiny of the shared beliefs, assumptions, and methods of argument that underwrite contemporary skepticism about moral objectivity and moral inquiry” (2). She takes on an impressively large array of divergent viewpoints in moral theory and argues for a kind of middle way: while she views the kind of moral theory done by many influential professional philosophers as both wrong-headed and irrelevant to the concerns of the broader community of moral inquirers, she is quite adamant in rejecting the “antitheory” extreme as well. She finds the core of truth in the antitheory position to be the rejection of certain predominant views of philosophical theorizing, not the rejection of philosophical theorizing tout court.

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