Michele Moody-Adams is Joseph Straus Professor of Political Philosophy and Legal Theory at Columbia University. She has served as the Dean of Columbia College and Vice President for Undergraduate Education at Columbia University and as Vice-Provost for Undergraduate Education at Cornell University. A holder of a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Harvard University and BA degrees from Wellesley College and Oxford University, Moody-Adams is the author of Fieldwork in Familiar Places: Morality, Culture and Philosophy and of many articles in political and moral philosophy. She will present a paper on Memory, Multiculturalism, and Democracy at the Charles Taylor at 80 conference taking place at the Musee des Beaux Arts March 29-31. For more information on the Conference go towww.mcgill.ca/newsroom/news/item/?item_id=215568.
You have argued that, even in the face of deep cultural differences, moral argument can help guide our actions. Why aren’t ideas about right and wrong culturally relative?
It is tempting to think that morality is relative because we do experience deep moral disagreements. Yet we could not even recognize or understand another’s position as a moral position, or appreciate its moral import unless we shared a certain stock of fundamental moral concepts. Those concepts exhibit the kind of complexity that makes it virtually impossible for any single person or culture to appreciate the whole truth about the concept; as we act in the world, in ways that change the “data” to which the concept applies, our interpretations are revealed as even more incomplete and imperfect than we thought. But when two people or culture disagree, for instance, about whether inequality is unjust, the concept of justice is the shared and “deep” foundation of their disagreement about how to interpret the concept of justice.
In addition to moral truth, you have defended the idea of moral progress. How can we know whether our understanding of right and wrong is improving over time?
I have never been ready to say that we can know that we have made moral progress, Rather, certain characteristics of moral claims and judgments (and of the institutions shaped by them) can provide good reasons to believe that we have made moral progress. For instance, if we can defend our moral claims without coercion or violence, we have good reason to believe that they embody progress in moral belief. Actions and institutions that embody such beliefs typically reflect moral progress in actions and institutions.
You have been both a philosopher and an academic administrator with responsibility for undergraduate education. What is the philosophy in a liberal arts education?
The best liberal arts education develops the kind of analytical and critical intelligence that allows the student to be an independent thinker. A liberal arts education should “liberate” the learner from the cognitive limitations of his or her origins, by helping the student become a constructively critical reader, writer, listener and observer of human experience.
Charles Taylor has written about the centrality of authenticity and recognition: a person being true to who he or she is, a cultural people being true to who they are, and others affirming their value. You’ll be discussing his ideas in a panel on multiculturalism. How different are your own ideas about identity and cultural membership from his?
Professor Taylor is a towering figure in contemporary political philosophy and social theory. His writings on the importance of cultural membership and political recognition of such membership is of unquestioned importance. I have been especially influenced by his notion that we can adopt the “starting hypothesis” that every culture is in principle valuable and worthy of non-interference, but that this is just a starting hypothesis that can be overridden by the facts.