Why moral theory is boring and corrupt1

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Why moral theory is boring and corrupt1

The will to a system is a lack of integrity.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, “Maxims and Arrows”, 26

Don’t think, but look!

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations I, 66

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn

Is just to love and be loved in return.

Eden Ahbez, “Nature Boy” (1947)




1. Pages from a sociology of academic life
Contemporary academic moral theory is a territory partitioned between a number of highly professionalised and (on the face of it) fiercely opposed schools of thought—consequentialism, Kantianism, virtue ethics, contractualism, natural law theory, sentimentalism and others. Not every academic ethicist is aligned with any of these schools, but most are, and all face insistent pressure to become aligned. (For example, appointing committees for ethics jobs often ask “What sort of ethicist are you?”, and tend, both intentionally and unintentionally, to penalise complex or unusual answers.)
Typically if not always—throughout this paper I shall be observing tendencies, not generalising without exceptions—these various schools behave as sects, in the pejorative sense of the word. The schools out-group and ignore each other, sometimes to an extent that suggests that no member of any other sect has ever produced any work worth discussing, or that no member of any other sect could so much as be tolerated as, for instance, a colleague. (I have heard of a job candidate who was asked at interview “How she thought she would fit in to the department, given that all the other moral theorists in it were consequentialists”.)

At other times, though less frequently, the sects stage cumbersome debates over “which of them is right”. Like Presidential debates in the US, these gigantomachiai have the air of mock-battles rather than real ones. There never seems to be much danger that anyone’s opinions will actually be changed. Not, at least, by the arguments involved—though there is always the chance of someone’s committing some catastrophic gaffe that will swing the “mood music” in favour of his opponents. (Perhaps, again as in a Presidential debate, these gaffes are really what the two sides are playing for.) Overall, if these sham debates resemble any real battle, it is Jutland: the key priority for both sides is to satisfy their paymasters by performing a convincing impression of a genuine exchange, while in reality steering their juggernauts of vested interest away from the actual danger-zones as soon and as unscathed as possible.

Why is academic moral theory today so often—not always, but often—in this parlous condition? Clearly, simple academic Realpolitik is part of the explanation. As all too often elsewhere in universities, the entrenched sects and their apparently immutable and interminable oppositions persist, not because a compelling intellectual case can be made in their defence (a priori it is entirely possible that the whole lot of them are indefensible), but because each of these sects has fought a successful campaign in institutional politics to establish its curricular and budgetary space—in other words, to become one of the vested interests that deans, heads of department, and other bureaucratic managers must accommodate.
However, there is more to it than that. Vested interest is not the full explanation of why academic moral theory today is the way it is. Many of moral theory’s deepest faults arise from factors inherent to the whole enterprise of moral theory. Or so, at least, I shall now argue.


2. Moral theory and the quest for the Master Factor
Moral theory is boring and corrupt insofar as2 it seeks what I shall call the Master Factor. The Master Factor is the single, simple, clear determinant of rightness or wrongness, goodness or badness, in any and every possible situation. Apparently, utilitarian moral theorists think the Master Factor is utility; Kantians think it is universalisability; Contractarians think it is absence of reasonable rejectability; Virtue Ethicists think it is accord with the virtues; Natural Law theorists (I used to be one of these) think it is respect and non-violation of all basic goods, and pursuit of some; et cetera.

Why is it boring and corrupt for moral theorists to be seeking the Master Factor? Consider a character whom moral theorists of all the above schools are likely to have little time for: the widely-mocked kind of Christian fundamentalist who seeks to resolve every practical issue by appeal to the single stark question “What does the Bible say?” About this character, I imagine most moral theorists will tell us pretty smartly that his decision-procedure is narrow, diminishing, unimaginative, lacking in creative depth or space, humanly impoverished, fanatically monocular. Someone who runs or tries to run his practical deliberation exclusively in line with the fundamentalist’s simplistic model is, they will tell us, living within the constraints of a deeply boring mode of deliberation. And, they will add, someone who comes into this model of deliberation from outside it—at conversion, say—has been corrupted. He has become a worse person, because—a little like Mr Bast in Howards End—he has replaced the polymorphic and polyvalent richness and diversity of real life for the grey uniformity of a theory.

The three hurried downstairs, to find, not the gay dog they expected, but a young man, colourless, toneless, who had already the mournful eyes above a drooping moustache that are so common in London... One guessed him as the third generation, grandson to the shepherd or ploughboy whom civilization had sucked into the town; as one of the thousands who have lost the life of the body and failed to reach the life of the spirit. Hints of robustness survived in him, more than a hint of primitive good looks, and Margaret, noting the spine that might have been straight, and the chest that might have broadened, wondered whether it paid to give up the glory of the animal for a tail coat and a couple of ideas. (E.M.Forster, Howards End, Chapter 14)

The very complaint that the moral theorists would make against the fundamentalist applies to them as well. Suppose we agree that it is boring to make your decisions solely by reference to the question “What does the Bible say?”, and that it is humanly diminishing—hence, corrupting—to move from richer and more natural modes of deliberation, to the mode that uses that question and nothing else. It is no less boring and corrupt to give up the glory of our natural deliberative life for the exiguous “couple of ideas” that are involved in the kinds of deliberative life that depend on The Master Questions “What would promote utility?” or “What is universalisable?”. Either question has, when you get down to it, not that much to recommend it over the Master Question “What does the Bible say?”.
My point is not that it could never be worthwhile to ask whether any given action promotes utility, or is universalisable, or can be reasonably rejected, or is in accordance with the virtues, etc. (Nor, come to that, is my point that it could never be worthwhile to ask “What does the Bible say?”. Provided we can do what fundamentalists—as opposed to more sophisticated sorts of Christian—conspicuously and characteristically fail to do, and develop a workable account of what it is for the Bible to say anything, there may well be illumination in these old pages even for doctrinaire atheists.) These are all important and illuminating questions to ask about good and bad, right and wrong—or they can be. The point is rather that moral theory, like fundamentalism, tells us to take just one of these questions, and treat it as the Master Question—the question that in every case identifies the Master Factor, the one thing that truly matters in ethics and which can settle every possible question that comes up for practical deliberation. The happy fact that real life just isn’t like this will be obvious to anyone who has grown up properly.

Often, some theory has been under criticism, and the more particular material [e.g. Williams’ famous examples in Utilitarianism: For and Against, pp.93-100) of George and Jim] has come in to remind one of the unreality and, worse, distorting quality of the theory. The material… is itself extremely schematic, but… it at least brings out the basic point that… the theory is frivolous, in not allowing for anyone’s experience, including the author’s own. Alternatively, the theory does represent experience, but an impoverished experience, which it holds up as the rational norm—that is to say, the theory is stupid. (Bernard Williams, “Replies”, in J.E.J.Altham and T.R.Harrison, edd., World, Mind, and Ethics (CUP 1995), p.217)

In plenty of real-life cases the questions what promotes utility, what is universalisable, what is reasonably rejectable, and what accords with the virtues will all be questions worth asking. Often more than one, perhaps all, of these questions will have something to bring to the party. The characteristic trouble with moral theories starts when each of them tries to take over the party. Or, to take a more scientific metaphor, the trouble starts when we forget that our theoretical idealisation is just that—an idealised model and no more—and try and treat it as if it was a complete and literal description of reality. The moment where we forget that we are talking about an idealised system, and start imagining we are talking about reality as it is, is the moment where scientism emerges from science; at the analogous moment in ethics, moral theory emerges from moral thought.3

To attempt to resolve every practical issue by means of a single Master Question is a desperately boring way to conduct our lives. To get going the pretence that this life of willed deliberative monotony is a real option for us, we have to convince ourselves that other questions besides the Master Question really don’t get to the heart of things; that nothing except the Master Factor is really of any importance. (It is an interesting comment on the workings of typical moral theory that one common way to argue for a moral theory’s favoured Master Factor is to point out that that factor is of moral significance in some particular case. How we are supposed to get from that premiss to the conclusion that only that factor ever matters in any case is not satisfactorily explained.4)
Like fundamentalism, the pretence that nothing matters except the Master Factor must either involve self-deception; or it must involve us in making ourselves stupider, narrower-minded and more monocular, than we were when we started out; or both. Either way, the process is corrupting; and knowingly going along with it, in mauvaise foi, is actually corrupt. (I mean the French term pretty literally, by the way. Moral theories offer us decision procedures that pretend to be inevitable. We can be taken in by this pretence of inevitability. We can also pretend to be taken in because it suits us to pretend. This latter is mauvaise foi in exactly Sartre’s sense.)

The question that these points raise is, I suggest, the question whether in fact we need moral theory at all.

Moral philosophy certainly needs the benefits of theory, but of theory in other parts of philosophy. I am more than ever convinced that what it does not need is a theory of its own. There cannot be any very interesting, tidy, or self-contained theory of what morality is, nor, despite the vigorous activities of some present practitioners, can there be an ethical theory, in the sense of a philosophical structure which, together with some degree of empirical fact, will yield a decision procedure for moral reasoning. This latter undertaking has never succeeded, and could not succeed, in answering the question, by what right does it legislate to the moral sentiments? The abstract and schematic conceptions of rationality which are usually deployed in this connection do not even look as though they were relevant to the question—so soon, at least, as morality is seen as something whose real existence must consist in personal experience and social institutions, not in sets of propositions. (Bernard Williams, Preface to Moral Luck (CUP 1981), ix-x)

The charge is that moral theory is exclusive, reductively narrow in its approach to the practical questions that we need to answer; and that these features of moral theory make it boring, because monotonous, and corrupting, because they encourage us to see this monotony, wrongly, as a good thing; they make moral theory actually corrupt, where mauvaise foi is involved. To this charge a number of lines of rejoinder spring immediately to mind. Here are three.

1. “Come now, it’s not really as bad as that.” I will be challenged to produce evidence to support the pessimistic picture I paint of contemporary moral theory. And of course I can be got to admit at least this: that I am not claiming that every single practising moral theorist alive today is working, in bad faith, for the sectarian and exclusive promotion of his own school of thought against all others. I am not unaware, for instance, of the ecumenical efforts of a writer like Derek Parfit, in his unpublished Climbing the Mountain5, the central thesis of which is that consequentialism, contractarianism, and deontology, on the best understandings of each, are convergent theories—as it were, different routes up the same mountain. Nor am I unaware of the work of contemporary intuitionists like Berys Gaut and (though they don’t use the label) David McNaughton and Piers Rawling, all of whom energetically deny that there is any such thing as a single Master Factor.6 What I am saying is that professional ethicists are under a lot of systemic pressure to play the moral-theory game: to engage in the sectarian and exclusivist search for a unique Master Factor; anyone who has never noticed this pressure cannot, so far as I can imagine, have been to any moral-theory conferences. What I am also saying is that anyone who finds that the cap that my description has designed fits, should wear it.

2. “Unfair to moral theory.” A related rejoinder says that my argument so far underestimates the resources of moral theory. Of course—says this rejoinder—the moral theorist isn’t condemned to settle every moral issue by reference to just one Master Question. Moral theory, even if it does recognise some one thing as a Master Factor—utility or universalisability or virtue or whatever—can still deploy lots and lots of different sub-questions; and so, moral theory can be sophisticated and rich. In fact, the rejoinder continues, the problem I have identified is not really a problem about moral theory at all. It is a problem about crudity and poverty of thought. And surely it is obvious that no moral theorist worth controverting will be in favour of these qualities?

I have no wish to claim, in the teeth of obvious evidence, that moral theory cannot be subtle and sophisticated. On the contrary, there is a great deal to admire in contemporary moral theory in these respects. My point is that even when it is at its most subtle and sophisticated, the subtlety and sophistication tends to come (does not always come, but tends to come) in the wrong place to prevent moral theory from still harbouring a drive towards crudity and poverty of thought; as for instance when a staggeringly complex and ingenious account is given of the nature of a fundamentally reductive and oversimplifying notion such as “utility”. As actually done these days moral theory—however subtle—instinctively aims to systematise, to give economical explanations, to reduce the phenomena under as few and as simple explanatory headings as possible.

(Consider here the remarkable words of D.D.Raphael, Moral Philosophy (OUP 1994), p.55: while intuitionism “gives a reasonably accurate picture of everyday moral judgement”, “it does not meet the needs of a philosophical theory, which should try to show connections and tie things up in a coherent system”. “The needs of philosophical theory”? What sort of needs are these, and how do they compare for importance with, for instance, the needs of actual people?)

Even if a moral theory does recognise a plethora of sub-questions, it will still typically want to regiment these sub-questions, however numerous, tidily under its Master Question. The reductive and simplifying drive does not go away, however well moral theorists may disguise it.


3. Criterion of rightness vs. deliberative procedure. A third response runs on exceedingly familiar lines. It points to the well-known fact, which I have ignored so far but now come to deal with, that a moral theory’s criterion of rightness (CR) is independent of its deliberative procedure (DP). So, says this response, there is no reason why a theory that has a very simple CR, as in fact all major moral theories do, should not also have a very complex DP (or suite of DPs) at its disposal. Once we separate out CR and DP (the response continues), we can see that the moral theorist need not claim that the moral agent must constantly be engaged, as the fundamentalist is, in thinking about the Master Factor; it is only the moral theorist who has to do that.

The trouble with this claim that CR and DP are independent runs deep, and we shall come back to it in section 4. First time round, I will just ask: what do we mean by “independent” here? It is certainly true that a criterion of rightness is not the same thing as a deliberative procedure: in that sense, of course they are independent. But it is certainly false that the two can rationally be kept apart if both are present in the same consciousness: in this sense, they are not and cannot be independent. There simply is no logically or psychologically stable way for a CR and a DP to coexist in a minimally self-aware and intelligent moral agent without interacting. If I know (say) that right acts are all and only those which promote utility, and am also seeking to do all and only right acts, then it is just impossible for me—unless I am grossly irrational—to keep these two thoughts from influencing each other. My awareness of the CR will inevitably find work to do as I try to deliberate about how I should act. Conversely, the deliverances of my DP will be one source of critical leverage on my own, and others’, beliefs about the CR. The result is that any person who (correctly) accepts a complex DP is going to have to let that complexity generate a critical perspective on his CR. And if his CR is implausibly simple, as the moral theorists’ CRs are, this critical perspective will be very likely, if all goes well, to tell him so.

My thesis is that moral theory is a poor way to do ethics, and I shall have more to say about this thesis in later parts of this paper. But first, since my thesis obviously prompts the question “So how else could we do ethics?”, I shall sketch an alternative. I do this in section 3, by developing the idea of an ethical outlook.
The point that I want to make about ethical outlooks is not to recommend that we now start introducing them into ethics to replace moral theories. My point is rather that ethical outlooks are there already, in all half-way decent ethical philosophy; and that the role of moral theories, in practice, is mostly just to disguise their presence, and to confuse the issue about what the enterprise of ethics actually is (or could be, or should be). Refocusing our thinking in ethics around the idea of an ethical outlook may help to straighten that thinking out.


3. The idea of an ethical outlook
Anybody who is going to live a genuinely worthwhile and a fully human life will have to live out a set of views and commitments about the central questions concerning value: what is worth living for and what is worth dying for, what is really admirable and what is really contemptible, what we must do at all costs and what we must not do no matter what; and so on. This set of views and commitments need not be very explicit; but it must run deep—must be sincerely and indeed passionately held. And it need not be very systematic; but it must be as considered, rationally defensible, and coherent as possible. Any such set of views about value is what I will call an ethical outlook.

What must a set of views and commitments be like, to constitute a credible and liveable ethical outlook? One difficulty in answering this question is that no universally-quantified generalising answer to it, of the kind usually preferred by systematising philosophers, is available. In fact it is a key part of what I shall argue in this section that credible ethical outlooks are known by recognition, not definition.

A second difficulty is that what counts as a credible and liveable ethical outlook is dependent on how the world is. If there is no God, for instance, or if the God that there is is the Christian God rather than, say, the Odin of Norse myth, or if determinism or evolutionary reductionism or classical Marxism or Freudianism is true—whatever the truth about these big questions may be, it is bound to constrain what counts as a genuinely credible and liveable ethical outlook. This is hardly the place to decide between these alternatives. But if we don’t, how can we say what ethical outlooks are credible or liveable?
These two difficulties do not stop us from identifying some examples of what are, surely, at least prima facie credible ethical outlooks, and some features that all such ethical outlooks must surely have in common. Here is one example.
He was but three and twenty, and had only just learned what it is to be in love—to love with that adoration which a young man gives to a woman who he feels to be greater and better than himself. Love of this sort is hardly distinguishable from religious feeling. What deep and worthy love is so, whether of woman or child, or art or music. Our caresses, our tender words, our still rapture under the influence of autumn sunsets, or pillared vistas, or calm majestic statues, or Beethoven symphonies all bring with them the consciousness that they are mere waves and ripples in an unfathomable ocean of love and beauty; our emotion in its keenest moment passes from expression into silence, our love at its highest flood rushes beyond its object and loses itself in the sense of divine mystery. And this blessed gift of venerating love has been given to too many humble craftsmen since the world began for us to feel any surprise that it should have existed in the soul of a Methodist carpenter half a century ago. (George Eliot, Adam Bede, Chapter 3)

Dinah Morris and Seth Bede are uneducated and undistinguished people, adherents of an unsophisticated and undistinguished creed, Primitive Methodism. But as the highly intellectual agnostic George Eliot shows us, it is their deeply felt faith in that creed that gives their ethical outlook its profundity. At this point in the novel, Seth Bede is in anguish because Dinah Morris has just rejected his proposal of marriage. The simplicity and inarticulacy of Seth’s mind, religion, and character does not mean that there is anything shallow or crude about his emotion and his attachment to Dinah, or about the overall ethical outlook of which his attachment is a part. After all, the “unfathomable ocean of love and beauty” that Seth is brought to touch on by his love for Dinah is there in Plato’s Symposium too (210d). Seth Bede and Dinah Morris have a prima facie credible ethical outlook, even though, as good Primitive Methodists, they believe “in present miracles, in instantaneous conversions, in revelations by dreams and visions”. Indeed it is the beliefs of their faith, and what those beliefs mean to them, that gives their ethical outlook its shape and tone.

Something more like George Eliot’s own ethical outlook is famously expressed by Matthew Arnold in the closing words of “Dover Beach”:
Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Here too is a prima facie credible ethical outlook, albeit at the opposite extreme of pessimism from the rapturous and ecstatic Platonism of Seth and Dinah. The most disturbing part of it is, of course, the implicit tension between the plea “Let us be true to one another!” and the universal darkness that Arnold finds around him. If the world contains no “certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain”, then it inexorably follows that no lovers can be sure of being true to each other, or hope to help each other’s pain even if they are.


No credible Christian or other theistic outlook can deny that the world very often at least seems to fit Arnold’s tragic vision of it, as a place of unheeded routine agony and brutal chaos; whatever a theist may go on to say about that “seems”. Certainly Gerard Manley Hopkins’ theistic ethical outlook, for example, does not lead him to deny it in “God’s Grandeur”:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


A very different kind of theist from Hopkins has no trouble with the obvious clash between the divine benevolence and the malignity of the world, because he does not see the divine as benevolent in the first place. So Hyllus at the close of Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, as he watches the removal from the scene of his father, Zeus’s stricken son Heracles, who is dying in agony because he put on the shirt of Nessus that was sent him as a present by Hyllus’ mother, Deianeira, whom Hyllus has now provoked to suicide by accusing her of deliberately killing Heracles.
Attendants, take him up. And pity on me,

Pity and compassion for my fault,

All while the unpitying gods indifferently

Watch these things unfold and call no halt.

They make us and they claim the name of fathers

Then stand afar and watch our suffering.


No one knows what the future time will offer;

The present time, for us, means suffering,

And for the gods means shame;

It means worse than any human suffering

For him on whom this doom of anguish came.
Girl, come away, and leave this house behind.

New shapes of enormous death now fill your mind,

Novelties of agony, pain beyond all use;

And nothing in all this that is not Zeus.



(Sophocles, Trachinae 1264-1278; my own translation)
Hyllus’ ethical outlook is as bleak as Matthew Arnold’s. That does not, unfortunately, make it any less credible.

Even if we cannot capture the idea of a credible and liveable ethical outlook in a definition, we can use examples like these four to draw out some features that credible ethical outlooks will normally have. Here are six such features.

First, despite the clear religious content of at least three of my four examples, an ethical outlook does not need to have any explicitly theological or even philosophical content to count as prima facie credible. Its import is, as they say, existential, and it is an open question whether existential concerns are best expressed by theological conceptions, or by philosophical ones; or indeed by either.
Secondly, and connectedly, an ethical outlook needs to match and to encapsulate lived human experience; it needs to be true to experience, or at least to have a prima facie chance of being true. And it needs to be generally true, not just partially or occasionally true. That is, it needs to match and encapsulate a wide and generous range of human experience, not just a small and gerrymandered selection from, or a distortion of, human experience.
Thirdly, a credible ethical outlook needs to contain two sorts of elements corresponding to what Bernard Williams, as quoted in section 2, calls “the moral sentiments”: what I shall call commitments and perceptions. By “commitments” I mean the things we care about—our life-shaping relationships, and our life-shaping projects. Who (or what) I love, and how I love them, is a crucial ingredient in making my ethical outlook what it is—indeed, it is perhaps the crucial ingredient. Furthermore, it is hard to imagine a credible or liveable ethical outlook that does not have love for someone or at least something at its heart. It is equally hard to imagine a credible or liveable ethical outlook that does not include at least some things like ambitions, interests, vocations, “ground projects” as Williams calls them; and these too are commitments.

By “perceptions” I mean what are sometimes called “moral intuitions”. At the foundations of any normal person’s first-order morality stand a variety of basic moral convictions by reference to which her other views are justified, and from which her other convictions are inferences or extrapolations. For instance: for most of us today7, the claims that, at least in the great majority of conceivable cases, it is very seriously wrong to torture, steal, murder, or rape will be basic moral convictions in this sense. We will regard these basic claims as obviously true, and our access to them will at least seem to be direct and quasi-sensory—which is why I call them perceptions. We will regard these perceptions as more certain than any argument that we can imagine being brought forward either to support them or to undermine them. They will strike us with such evidential force that it would be at least subjectively irrational for us to abandon them under the influence of some argument or perception which is itself much less persuasive or vivid than they are. New or doubtful moral claims will be tested against these basic convictions; if the new claims contradict the basic convictions, the new claims will normally be rejected. Although our perceptions obviously have cognitive content, they are also a third sort of commitment alongside our relationships and our projects. We care deeply about respecting our strongest moral intuitions, and feel as personally violated by having to go against them as we do by having to abandon or betray our relationships or our projects.

Fourthly, and as a corollary of the second feature, about truthfulness, a credible ethical outlook needs to be open-edged: an ethical outlook must be sensitive to the possibility of new experiences, and of resulting new perceptions, new projects, and new relationships. It must also be open to the converse possibility, that new experience might show up old perceptions, projects, or relationships as no longer worth their while—or never worthwhile in the first place.
Fifthly, a credible and liveable ethical outlook needs (as I said at the start) to be “as considered, rationally defensible, and coherent as possible”. Put this together with the points I have just made about truthfulness, and this much should be clear: that a credible and liveable ethical outlook displays no more system or coherence than is true to life itself. It does not automatically seek to reduce the obvious diversity of the projects, relationships, perceptions, and other commitments that are its elements to any sort of uniformity, e.g. by representing novel and hitherto “unprocessed” experiences as mere variants on previous experience. It is always open to the thought “This is not the same thing again, but something new”.
Sixthly, this willingness to live with diversity is also a willingness to live with complexity and even conflict. In sharp contrast to what is expected of moral theories, we may say that a credible ethical outlook does not have to include a way of resolving every possible value-conflict, or even every actual value-conflict, that occurs within it. Only a few of the indefinitely many value-conflicts that are possible even could come up within any actual life, and there is no particular reason to think that those that do come up are all sure to be resolved.

I do not mean to deny by this that often such conflicts can be resolved within a credible ethical outlook; and their resolutions can involve reasoning, rather than just being a matter of a sheer change of perspective. (As one humble example, take the reasonings that Dinah Morris and Seth Bede have just been engaging in with each other about whether to marry, immediately before the quotation from Adam Bede given above.) However, value-conflict resolution within an adequate ethical outlook, where the values in conflict are ones that the agent actually has a genuine stake in, is typically an experiential and narrative business.

The choice between one potential love and another can feel, and be, like a choice of a way of life, a decision to dedicate oneself to these values rather than these. (Nussbaum, Love’s Knowledge, OUP 1990: 328)
Such choices are not about weighing and measuring different quantities of some arcane property that only trained philosophers know about called value. They are about asking “What do I want to do about the place in my life-story of these two values, given that I cannot go on giving both of them the place that they have had up to now?”. (I am using the vague, abstract place-holding term “values”; it may help to sharpen the focus if the reader thinks of these values as persons—which they often are when this sort of question comes up. They certainly are in Chapter 3 of Adam Bede, for instance.) The process of working out an answer to such a question is costly, and personal. It is not abstract, deductive, and weightlessly theoretical, as the rankings of values within the axiological schedules beloved of some philosophers typically are. If that sounds messy, we may retort, with Sir David Ross, that it is no messier than real life:
If the objection be made, that this catalogue [of perceptions] is an unsystematic one resting on no logical principle, it may be replied… [that the first principles of any moral theory are] reached by exactly the same method—the only sound one in the circumstances—viz. that of direct reflection on what we really think. Loyalty to the facts is worth more than a symmetrical architectonic or a hastily reached simplicity. (Ross, The Right and the Good (Oxford: Clarendon 1930, Chapter 2)8
Or as Aristotle puts it, in about the clearest statement he ever gives us of his own method in ethics:

Just as we did in our other inquiries, we must take hold of what looks to be true, and start with the problems about that. This is the best way to prove perhaps all of our intuitive beliefs (endoxa) about these experiences—or if not all, then the majority of them, and the most authoritative. For if the difficulties raised by our intuitive beliefs can be resolved in a way that leaves those intuitive beliefs standing, that should be all we need to prove their truth. (NE 1145b3-8, my own translation)
This, then, is my positive thesis, about what an ethical outlook is. In the rest of the paper I develop a negative thesis. This is that no moral theory that I can think of9 can be a credible or liveable ethical outlook.


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