Living Together: Inventing Moral Science

Schmidtz, David

My comments 2023-08-28


It is widely assumed that political philosophy is dependent on moral philosophy. That is, in order to argue about political issues, one has to first sort out morality. The philosopher David Schmidtz argues in his book "Living together. Inventing moral science" that it is the other way around. The problem of how to live together, that is, politics, is primary. Morality then becomes part of the solution. The question "how to live together?" is more fundamental than "how to live?".

The book takes the form of a set of separate essays which are arranged to fit together. This is successful up to a point; a few of the chapters do not really contribute all that much to the main theme. It makes for an uneven reading experience. Some of the chapters are excellent, with insights that make you think, while a few are more technical and not very inspiring.

Schmidtz uses the term "moral science". This refers to the constellation of subject fields such as social science, philosophy, economy, anthropology, etc, which can or could contribute to the study of how humans could live together and flourish. During the Scottish Enlightenment, whose main figures were David Hume and Adam Smith, moral and political philosophy was an empirical project. Their salient question was "what works?". However during the 1800s, and even more strongly during the 1900s, the discussion changed topic to "how to act?". This was a change for the worse, in Schmidtz view.

Schmidtz points out that in a world where there are multiple agents, each with their own project(s), it is not enough to just consider how to act. One must include the fact that others will respond from the very beginning of the analysis. These others will not necessarily want to act according to your wishes, and they will not have the same goals. Every act of yours will entail a response from them which will affect the outcome. Living together implies having to deal with this. Moral and political philosophy must therefore seriously consider the problems of living together and the strategies that can be employed to solve these problems. Schmidtz accuses, among others, John Rawls for making assumptions which amount to serious evasions of several basic conundrums of life in a society. Strategy is essential and cannot be approximated away.

The book contains a very interesting discussion of idealist versus realist positions in moral and political philosophy. One important strand here is the argument that justice cannot be derived from axioms, but is instead an evolving response to the human condition. Empiricism, in a certain sense, must be the focus, rather than deductively arguing from first principles.

I am intrigued and happy to see that David Schmidtz towards the end of the book makes explicit the point that I believe is implicit in how he starts out his argument. Namely, that one must consider the evolutionary history of the human species to fully understand justice and morality. He writes: "We are social and political animals, and justice is a human adaption to an ecological niche." In a chapter written with Jason Brennan titled "A Brief History of the Human Condition", there is a description of how important cooperation is for humans, and how it has evolved and formed our species. I wish that this would have been the starting chapter of the book, because this story is in fact central to how moral and political philosophy should be restated.

There are many thoughts and arguments in this book that invite discussion. Indeed, there are many that are not fully developed or joined together in a more coherent fashion. I leave the book with a sense of having seen glimpses of a new start for moral and political philosophy. But it is tentative, which is both good, since it opens the door for further development, and bad, since as it is, the account is too fragmented and tentative.