Waiting on moral excellence

| March 28, 2010

It’s been a while since I’ve worked on my essay on retirement and moral achievement. Originally, I set out with two goals. Firstly, I wanted to be pragmatic about the purpose of the essay (“It’s for the Baby Boomers”), and write with an appropriate sense of urgency. Secondly, I wanted to settle some philosophical scores by blending normative ethics with meta ethics to arrive at a satisfying kind of self-reflection (on the part of the reader). Unfortunately, this pragmatic aim unravels pretty fast as the reader is left to grapple with the irony that the unfinishedness of life is perhaps only surpassed by the inability of philosophy (language itself?) to surmount it.

I still think it’s a worthwhile project. To make progress, perhaps I need a better focus: either I should work on a more tractable philosophical problem or go more boldly into the charlatanry of “self-help” literature. Alas, these are equally tempting options!

A short overview of the essay:

From a great array of possible lives, we have so far, for better or worse, each arrived at one life. But despite a Romantic (if thin) conception of self, the kind of ethics we live by are likely best described as diversefragmented, and incomplete. Why is this the case? And, more to the point, what does it—let’s call it fragmentedness—mean for us? Does it mean we will not be able to be happy, successful, or wise? Or does it mean we may be all those things but that we may be unable to escape the doubt that we are not so? To better understand the experience of retirement, we must first develop a kind of “double vision” of ethics—seeing at once that fragmentedness may be necessary, as well as coming to believe that it is essentially untenable. We will also encounter the deep-seated philosophical problem of whether or not there are such things as “moral facts.”