Moral Ground – K.D. Moore / M.P. Nelson, Eds. [Review]

June 6, 2012


Page 2 – Moral Ground

Yet, starting from such different places, the conclusion is startling: all agree; we must act for the future of the planet. The anthology as a whole makes the argument that no one article by itself articulates. This is a powerful presentation and a useful way to combat the professed ethical skepticism and subjectivism of consumer culture.

(3) A Future: The potential debates between the various positions represented in Moral Ground, the issues on which they diverge rather than converge, remain muted. The editors themselves, however, gesture toward one disagreement. The disagreement, with Wendell Berry, concerns our moral obligation to “the future.” Berry’s essay, “A Promise Made in Love, Awe, and Fear” (387-389), worries about grounding ethics in the future, as this is the move that grounds all the hopes of technological utopias as well as the profit-driven corporations that create our re-current crises. Berry claims that appeals to the future attempt to draw credit on abstractions.

What can turn us from this deserted future, back into the sphere of our being, the great dance that joins us to our home, to each other and to other creatures, to the dead and the unborn? I think it is love…. But I do not mean any kind of abstract love, which is probably a contradiction in terms, but particular love for particular things, places, creatures, and people, requiring stands and acts, showing its successes or failures in practical or tangible effects…. One cannot love the future or anything in it, for nothing is known there.

Berry argues against an ethic based in abstractions, of which “the future” is one, and asks instead for an ethic grounded in love and in promise to real creatures, including the dead and the unborn.  A promise is not grounded in the future, but refers to the past act when the promise was made.

In their introductory essay, the editors offer a pre-emptive pushback.  Without naming Berry, they formulate this summary of the position: “A dissenter might argue in response that the concept of obligations to the future makes no sense at all.  The future does not exist…. How can there be obligations to abstractions?”  In reply, the editors bite the bullet. If the future is an abstraction, so be it; the moral life is made of abstractions: “people show strong loyalty to abstractions every time they act in ways that honor conceptual ideas such as freedom, liberty, and prosperity.”  Moreover, they claim, we grasp abstractions through our imagination, and the moral life depends on imagination.  “If any among us does not have the ability to imagine the pain or rejoicing of people other than themselves, then perhaps a first step in moral development is to practice that imagining.  This is the work of moral education” (p. xxiii).

What are we, the readers of Moral Ground, to make of this debate? Do the editors seriously think that Berry either opposes or doesn’t fully appreciate the role of imagination in moral reasoning? More generally, why have the editors committed to a stance which should rule out of the anthology at least some positions?  Do they mean to rule out any position, quite popular in the middle of the last century, that sails under the flag “the philosophy of the concrete”? Are there other positions that have not been included?

Yet, they still include Berry’s essay. Does Berry’s essay and the anthology itself argue for our obligation to “the future” or doesn’t it? Can we still read the anthology as arguing that “all agree”?

A little reflection reveals that the nature of the future and our own relation to it takes different, and perhaps incompatible, forms in Christianity, Buddhism, and Native American religions, in deontology and utilitarianism, for Brazilians and the Inuit. These differences must make a difference somewhere.

Though perhaps not everywhere. Moral Ground takes in such a vast range and presents so many authors that it necessarily sacrifices depth and precision.  It pushes into the background what it has not pinned down and what will haunt its pages.  This is the inevitable result of the editorial decision to produce this project. Once the reader’s eyes adjust to the brilliance of both the project and the presentation, they may see the specter of ambiguity that holds the entire project together. In Moral Ground, this is a productive ambiguity. It calls us to act, now, where we can, with others.


Gregory A. Clark is Professor of Philosophy at North Park University, and a member of Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, IL.