In her 2015 Gifford Lectures, Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski advances a new empirically-based form of moral theory she calls Exemplarist Moral Theory (EMT). In this brief review, I discuss several components of her theory.
First, the emotion of admiration is foundational for EMT as Zagzebski develops it. In other work, she argues that emotions have intentional objects that either fit or fail to fit the emotion directed at them. For example, we are right to be angry at someone deserving of anger, but we would be mistaken to be angry at someone for being kind to us, as when one offers us a gift. But not only can emotions be accurate or inaccurate, Zagzebski thinks we should reflectively trust our emotions as reliable trackers of how the world is. Thus, when we admire someone, we have a reason to treat that person as an exemplar in some respect.
So exemplars are those persons we admire upon reflection. One might wonder, however, why exemplars are important for doing ethics. Zagzebski tells us that admiration tracks admirable qualities, qualities that we aim to imitate in others. But there is a difficulty with identifying what makes someone—Zagzebski’s main examples are Leopold Socha, Jean Vanier, and Confucius—an exemplar and subsequently imitating them. It is in responding to this difficulty that we find what is most distinctive in EMT.
Crucially, we identify the admirable by direct reference to exemplars in the same way that we identify, say, water by direct reference to samples of water. Now, water has a number of superficial features—e.g. being a refreshing, clear, liquid—that anyone competent with using ‘water’ would use to pick out a sample of water; however, for most of human history the deep physical structure that explains why water has such features—e.g. its chemical structure as H2O—has remained outside of human knowledge. Scientists, however, in analyzing water eventually uncovered that deep structure by studying the samples of water we identified by tracking the merely superficial features of water. EMT works similarly. Like water, we trust our ability to pick out admirable persons more than we trust ourselves to reason a priori about the deep psychological features that make such persons admirable. Thus, we can begin by identifying exemplars and then study them in various ways to uncover what makes them admirable in a way analogous to how scientists studied the chemical composition of water.
But then, what leads us to emulate exemplars? The answer is built into the very nature of emotions, which include a motivational component. Thus, we start “with admiration of an exemplar, which leads to an imaginative ideal of oneself, which in turn produces emulation of the exemplar’s motives and acts” (138).
Central to ethics, then, are the questions of how to identify a good life and how to become a good person. Most moral theories attempt to answer this question through a priori reasoning, but such reasoning is not grounded in the kinds of creatures we humans are. EMT refreshingly grounds moral theory not in armchair reflection, but rather, in empirical investigation into the actual psychology of human exemplars.