Ethical Theory
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Ethical Theory

An Anthology

Russ Shafer-Landau, Russ Shafer-Landau

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eBook - ePub

Ethical Theory

An Anthology

Russ Shafer-Landau, Russ Shafer-Landau

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Über dieses Buch

The second edition of Ethical Theory: An Anthology features a comprehensive collection of more than 80 essays from classic and contemporary philosophers that address questions at the heart of moral philosophy.

  • Brings together 82 classic and contemporary pieces by renowned philosophers, from seminal works by Hume and Kant to contemporary views by Derek Parfit, Susan Wolf, Judith Jarvis Thomson, and many more
  • Features updates and the inclusion of a new section on feminist ethics, along with a general introduction and section introductions by Russ Shafer-Landau
  • Guides readers through key areas in ethical theory including consequentialism, deontology, contractarianism, and virtue ethics
  • Includes underrepresented topics such as moral knowledge, moral standing, moral
    responsibility, and ethical particularism

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Part I

The Status of Morality

Introduction to Part I

Suppose that we are puzzled about whether we ought to lend our support to a war that our government has initiated. We mull things over, we talk to our friends, we listen to what politicians and opinion writers have to say about the matter, and then, finally, we do manage to make up our minds. Can our moral view of the ­matter be true? If so, what could make it true?
Suppose that we have thought things out quite a bit, and have arrived, not at a particular assessment of this war or that war, but of all wars – we have developed a theory of just war. This theory tells us the conditions under which the activities of war are just and right. Can this theory be true? If so, what makes it true?
Suppose, finally, that our thinking has become so sophisticated that we are able, after a great deal of effort, to develop an entire ethic. We have, to our satisfaction, identified the conditions that determine whether actions are moral or immoral. Can this sort of theory be true? If so, what makes it true?
The questions I have posed are not questions about the content of morality. I am not asking about what should go on the laundry list of moral dos and don’ts. The questions I posed above are about the status of our moral opinions, and our moral theories. What are we doing when we arrive at moral verdicts and theories? So long as we are speaking sincerely, we are surely ­voicing our personal opinion about such matters. But is that all there is to it? Do our opinions answer to any independent authority? Are actions right just because someone approves of them? Because a society approves of them? Because God approves of them? Or might it be that actions are right independently of all such sources of approval? Or, more pessimistically, might it be the case that morality is a fraud, a system of merely conventional rules that have no real authority at all? On this line, all of our moral talk is fraught with error: we think that genocide is immoral, and think it our duty to tend to the weak, but these views, like all moral views, are (on this line) simply mistaken.
The possibilities just canvassed represent the wide variety of views in metaethics. Metaethics is that branch of ethical theory that asks, not about the content of morality, but about its status. Is morality a human invention? A divine creation? Something else? Can we have moral knowledge, and, if so, how? Are moral requirements rationally compelling – do we always have excellent reason to do as morality says? For ­present purposes, the central metaethical question is whether moral views can be true, and, if so, whether they can be objectively true. A claim is objectively true just in case it is true independently of what any human being ­actually thinks of it. There are lots of objective truths: that two and two are four; that oxygen is denser than helium, that the planet Mars is smaller than the planet Jupiter. The big question here is whether there are any moral claims that share this status.
Many of our writers do not think so. David Hume, our lead-off author, wrote his magnificent Treatise of Human Nature when he was still in his twenties. Contained therein is a series of very powerful ­arguments against the objectivity of ethics. Many of these arguments are, either on their own or with an updating, taken today as cogent reasons for rejecting ethical objectivity. One of the more famous arguments is this:
1. All claims that can be known by reason are either empirical matters of fact, or conceptual truths (such as “all bachelors are unmarried,” or “all cubes have six sides”).
2. Moral claims do not represent empirical matters of fact.
3. Moral claims do not represent conceptual truths.
4. Therefore reason cannot give us moral knowledge.
Hume was also notable for emphasizing the ­impossibility of deducing an ought from an is, i.e., deducing a moral claim, or a prescription about what should be done, from a factual claim that describes what is the case. One is making no logical error in accepting this description: “that action is a premeditated killing of a defenseless child,” but failing to infer that “therefore that action is immoral.” If the person who knows of the killing fails to deem it immoral, she is not making a logical error. But what other sort of error could she be making? It is no error of reason, says Hume, for it is an implication of his argument, above, that errors of reason are limited to two kinds: mistaking empirical matters of fact, or misunderstanding the concepts one is employing. But such a ­callous individual may know all of the nonmoral facts surrounding the killing, and may be as conceptually sophisticated as the rest of us. If there is any error made by such a person, it cannot be that she has failed to get at the truth. For reason is the faculty that gets at truth, and if, according to Hume, there is no error of reason, then there is no failure to light on the truth. Perhaps, as many commentators read him, that is because Hume didn’t believe that there was such a thing as ethical truth.
Here is another argument taken from Hume’s classic work:
1. Moral judgments are intrinsically motivating.
2. Beliefs are not intrinsically motivating – they need desires to generate motivation.
3. Therefore moral judgments are not beliefs.
If moral judgments are not beliefs, then what are they? A. J. Ayer, whose views on ethics clearly bear a Humean influence, claims that our moral judgments are just expressions of our emotions. If I judge that eating meat is immoral, for instance, I am not reporting a putative fact about meat eating. Rather, I am expressing my aversion to it. It’s as if I were saying: “meat-eating – yechhh!” Such an expression, pretty clearly, cannot be true. But neither can it be false. It is not the sort of thing discernible by reason, since it doesn’t seek to represent the way things really are. Moral judgments are not reports or descriptions of the world. They are our emotional responses to a world that contains no values at all.
J. L. Mackie holds a view that is pretty close to Ayer’s. Mackie agrees with Ayer that the world contains no values. Nothing is morally right or wrong. Of course, almost all of us resort to moral vocabulary to register our approvals or disapprovals of things. But our moral judgments are never true.
There is a subtle but important disagreement between these two thinkers. Ayer denies that moral judgments are truth-apt, i.e., capable of being true or false. He thinks this because of his attachment to the verifiability criterion of meaning, according to which a sentence is meaningful only if it is either a conceptual truth or empirically verifiable. Ayer basically takes Hume’s criterion for what could be discovered by reason, and applies it to the theory of meaning. Ayer denies that moral claims are conceptual truths, and he also thinks it impossible to verify them through the evidence of the senses. So Ayer judges them meaningless. And a meaningless sentence is not truth-apt – it is neither true nor false.
Mackie, by contrast, thinks that moral claims are meaningful, but always fail to state the truth. That’s because, for Mackie, there is no moral truth. Morality is entirely made-up, though we all suppose that it answers to some objective criteria of right and wrong. Since there are no such criteria, all of our moral claims rest on a ­massive failure of presupposition. We assume the ­existence of objective values in our moral judgments. We try to ­accurately report on the details of an objective ­morality. But we invariably fail, and lapse into error, because the very thing required to make our moral ­judgments true (i.e., an objective moral reality) does not exist.
Mackie’s arguments for this view are numerous. One of the most important ones is this:
1. The degree of disagreement in ethics is much greater than that found in science.
2. The best explanation of this is that science explores a realm of objective facts, while ethics comprises a set of judgments that reflect non-objective, ­parochial opinion.
3. The view likeliest to be true is the one that best explains the available evidence.
4. Therefore the view likeliest to be true is that ethics comprises a set of judgments that reflect non-objective, parochial opinion.
The comparative breadth and depth of ethical disagreement has long been a source of suspicion about the objectivity of ethics. So, too, has this concern, again well expressed by Mackie in another of his arguments:
1. If there are any genuine moral requirements, then they must be intrinsically motivating and intrinsically reason-giving.
2. Nothing is either intrinsically motivating or intrinsically reason-giving.
3. Therefore there are no genuine moral requirements.
Mackie argues that anything that is either intrinsically motivating or reason-giving would be “queer” – quite unlike anything else we know of in the universe. Following Hume, he thinks that motivation is entirely contingent on what one happens to believe and desire. No fact or putative requirement can motivate all by itself. Mackie also thinks that the very concept of a moral requirement entails that it supply an excellent or overriding reason for all to whom it applies. But again, he thinks that reasons depend on contingent facts about people’s desires or interests. No consideration can supply a reason for action all by itself; whether it does so or not depends on whether it is conducive to one’s ends. Since, by Mackie’s lights, something counts as a moral requirement only if it supplies, by itself, a reason for compliance, and since, as he sees it, there can be no such intrinsically reason-giving entities, it follows that there are no genuine moral requirements.
Gilbert Harman is the last representative in our readings of those who are deeply suspicious of the objectivity of ethics. Updating an argument that can be found in our selection from Hume’s Treatise, Harman argues that we have good reason to deny the existence of objective moral facts. The argument is this: all objective facts are indispensable in explaining what we observe; no putative moral facts are thus indispensable; therefore there are no objective moral facts. We can explain all that needs explaining without introducing any moral features. If we want to discover why people are born or die, why banks operate as they do, why crops flourish or fail, we needn’t invoke moral facts in the explanations. Indeed, everything we observe about the world can be explained, at least in principle, without the use of any moral notions or categories at all. This seems straightforward when we are seeking to explain scientific phenomena, such as the workings of enzymes, or the motions of planets. But it is also true when we are trying to explain why we think, for instance, that (in Harman’s example) setting light to a cat is immoral. We have the moral thoughts we do because of our upbringing. We are not attuned to some odd realm of objective moral fact; rather, we express our socially inculcated views of right and wrong when we issue our moral judgments. This last view, very like one of Mackie’s, says that the simpler hypothesis by far is that our moral judgments are nothing more than expressions of parochial attitudes formed during our maturation. Why complicate things by introducing a realm of objective moral facts, when all that needs explaining – including our propensity to have confident moral views – can be explained without them?
Though sharing a good deal of Mackie’s suspicion about moral objectivity, Harman does not think that our moral views are all erroneous. Rather, Harman endorses a thesis known as ethical relativism. When we judge actions right or wrong, we are doing so only relative to a conventional moral standard – the one that we have agreed (with others) to accept. Though Harman offers a number of considerations on behalf of his favored view, perhaps the most powerful is given by the following line of argument: Moral requirements provide reasons for action. Further, people have reasons to act in certain ways only if such actions serve their ends. Since people’s ends (i.e., their desires and commitments) differ from person to person, people’s reasons for action differ in this way as well. It follows that people’s moral requirements differ in this way as well. What counts as the correct moral requirements is thus contingent on what we happen to care about. Harman thus parts company with Ayer and Mackie in thinking that there are, in fact, real moral requirements. But he accepts their claim that moral demands have no ­objective authority.
Ethical relativism is here critically examined by Harry Gensler. He assesses the popular idea that social approval is the ultimate basis of morality. He considers familiar reasons offered to support relativism – namely, the diversity of moral ideas across cultures, and the importance of tolerance – and finds that relativism does not gain support from these claims, and fails to support them in turn. He charges relativism with a too-ready acceptance of existing social conventions, arguing that racism and intolerance are bad, even if they are socially popular. After all, says Gensler, social approval might be based on factual ignorance, or groundless superstition, and this undermines their moral authority. He concludes by arguing that some forms of ethical objectivism can vindicate the value of tolerance, explain the possibility of moral error, and account for moral disagreement in a satisfying way.
The readings of this part also include an excerpt from G. E. Moore’s influential work, Principia Ethica, written just over a century ago. Moore thinks that there are three major options for ethics: (a) ethical­ ­naturalism, according to which moral features of the world are nothing more than scientific features, and so as real as scientific features; (b) ethical nonnaturalism, ­according to which moral features, while real, are non-­scientific; or (c) a view, that he leaves nameless, according to which moral talk is meaningless, because there aren’t any real moral features of the world. Moore thinks that the last option is preposterous, and dismisses it nearly out of hand. This is the view that came later to be endorsed by Ayer and others. Moore famously argues against option (a), ethical naturalism, by means of his open-question argument: if it is an open question whether some natural feature of the world is identical to some moral feature, then they can’t really be ­identical. For any natural feature and any moral feature, there will be an open question as to whether they are really just one feature, or two. Therefore moral features are not natural, scientific features of the world.
Moore’s preferred view, ethical nonnaturalism, has been out of favor for the past several decades. This is partly explained by the great increase in philosophical naturalism, the world view that claims that all of the world’s contents are explicable scientifically. It is also attributable to a suspicion that if ethical nonnaturalism were true, we would have no access to moral facts except through intuition. Since different people have different intuitions, and intuitionism seems to have no method for adjudicating conflicts among intuitions, this moral epistemology has struck many as lacking credibility. Philosophers also worry about how ­unscientific moral facts could either motivate or ­provide moral agents with reasons for action, some­thing that, as we saw above, many think is part of the job description of a moral requirement.
I think that some form of ethical nonnaturalism is correct, and offer a partial defense of it here. The article doesn’t answer all of the objections that have been ­leveled against this view. Discussion of some of these ­criticisms is pursued in subsequent parts: see especially Part II, where moral intuitionism is defended (by Bambrough and Audi) and criticized (by Geoffrey Sayre-McCord), and Part III, where there is much ­discussion about whether moral requirements are intrinsically reason-giving (see especially the papers by Philippa Foot, who denies this, and my contribution there, which affirms it). In addition to trying to reply to objections, I do offer a positive argument on behalf of nonnaturalism, which highlights the parallels between philosophy generally, and ethics in particular. Philosophical questions admit of objectively correct answers, and philosophy is not a natural science. Since ethics is a branch of philosophy, we should expect that the same things are true of ethics, namely, that moral questions have objectively correct answers, which are no part of natural science to discover.
Michael Smith’s selection on moral realism – the technical term for the view that there is objective ­ethical truth – both describes and defends this metaethical position. He seeks to answer perennial worries about how we could know what is right and wrong, and how moral requirements could intrinsically ­motivate and provide reasons for action. He does this by developing an ideal advisor view of ethics. He thinks that what you are required to do is whatever you would want yourself to do, were you purged of false beliefs and possessed of a fully coherent set of desires. Because this ideal advisor is basically you, only new and improved, you already have built in a motivation to adhere to his or her recommendations. You have reason to take the advice seriously, since it is given by a highly informed counterpart who shares your basic outlook on life. And you can know what the advice is, provided that you can approximate the position of someone who has gathered relevant ­nonmoral information, and has managed to eliminate conflicts among relevant desires. In this way, if Smith is correct, we can address the most pressing objections to the possibility of ethical ...