Normative Ethics
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Normative Ethics

Shelly Kagan

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Normative Ethics

Shelly Kagan

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Providing a thorough introduction to current philosophical views on morality, Normative Ethics examines an acts rightness or wrongness in terms of such factors as consequences, harm, and consent. Shelly Kagan offers a division between moral factors and theoretical foundations that reflects the actual working practices of contemporary moral philosophers.Intended for upper-level or graduate students of philosophy, this book should also appeal to the general reader looking for a clearly written overview of the basic principles of moral philosophy. }Providing a thorough introduction to current philosophical views on morality, Normative Ethics examines an acts rightness or wrongness in light of such factors as consequences, harm, and consent. Shelly Kagan offers a division between moral factors and theoretical foundations that reflects the actual working practices of contemporary moral philosophers. The first half of the book presents a systematic survey of the basic normative factors, focusing on controversial questions concerning the precise content of each factor, its scope and significance, and its relationship to other factors. The second half of the book then examines the competing theories about the foundations of normative ethics, theories that attempt to explain why the basic normative factors have the moral significance that they do.Intended for upper-level or graduate students of philosophy, this book should also appeal to the general reader looking for a clearly written overview of the basic principles of moral philosophy.

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1.1 What Normative Ethics Is

How should one live? There are few questions, I think, that are as gripping and as inescapable as this one. Unlike many of the other classical questions of philosophy, this question—the central question of moral philosophy—seems pressing and important. It matters what answers we come up with, for it matters what I do with my life. What I make of myself, how I live, what I do, what kind of person I become—these things are of vital concern to each of us, even if few of us normally reflect on them in a systematic or critical fashion.
Moral philosophy attempts to answer the question of how one should live. Because of the staggering difficulty and significance of the question, any attempt to provide an answer can seem arrogant, pretentious, or embarrassing. Who could be so foolish, so naive, or so dogmatic, as to think that they had themselves (finally!) arrived at the truth about how to live? Indeed, many of us have learned to pretend—or have even fooled ourselves into thinking that we believe—that there are no correct answers here, that ethics is all simply a matter of opinion.
And yet, on reflection, most of us do in fact think that there are right and wrong answers in ethics. Here is a simple example: it would be immoral to set a child on fire for the mere pleasure of watching him burn. Is there anyone who seriously doubts the truth of this claim?
Perhaps there is. (Human history has produced more than its share of demented or wicked individuals.) If so, such a person need read no further in this book. But for the rest of us—for those who think that there are indeed certain moral claims that are correct and others that are wrong—the question is not whether there are right answers in moral philosophy but only to what extent we can arrive at them. How far can we go toward systematizing our answers and defending them? To what extent do our moral views need to be revised? Can our moral theories be generalized and extended so as to provide answers where we do not already possess confident opinions?
Now in broad terms there are two possible ways to go about answering questions like these (or perhaps there are two possible ways to understand the questions). On the one hand, you might try to discuss in abstract terms the very possibility of systematization in ethics, the nature of moral justification, the various possible grounds for revising ethical claims, and so on. On the other hand, you might try to do the actual work of systematizing, revising, and extending our moral views. That is, rather than concentrating on "second-order" questions concerning the nature and possibility of a moral theory, you might instead concentrate on the "ground-level" project of presenting and defending a moral view. In this book, we will be concerned with moral theories of this second, substantive sort.
This same point can be made with the help of some contemporary jargon. Moral philosophy as a whole can be usefully divided into three basic areas: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. Normative ethics—the topic of this book—involves substantive proposals concerning how to act, how to live, or what kind of person to be. In particular, it attempts to state and defend the most basic principles governing these matters. Consider, for example, our earlier judgment that it would be immoral to set a child on fire for the pleasure of watching him burn. Presumably the immorality of such an act can be explained in terms of something more basic or fundamental—perhaps a moral prohibition against causing horrible pain to the innocent. And perhaps that prohibition could itself be explained in terms of something even more general, such as a right not to be harmed. The point right now is not to decide whether or not these particular suggestions are correct, but only to illustrate one way in which we can move toward more and more fundamental moral claims.
Is there, then, a single ultimate moral principle from which all other moral principles can be derived? The debate over whether there is, and if so, what it might be, is the concern of normative ethics. And even if there is no one single fundamental moral principle, we can still try to arrive at a complete list of the basic moral principles—or, at the very least, a list of some of the most important ones. Normative ethics, then, is concerned with stating and defending the most basic moral principles. (But this talk about "principles" should not be taken too literally. I don't mean to be assuming without discussion that the most basic moral claims are best described in terms of rules. It might be that we need to talk instead—or in ad dition—about the most basic rights, duties, virtues, or what have you.)
Since the most basic moral principles will probably be stated in rather general terms, it will not always be apparent what to do in particular situations or in morally complex cases. This will be especially true if there are several fundamental principles, since conceivably these might conflict (or appear to conflict) in some particular case. It may be a difficult matter to decide how such a conflict is to be resolved or how a fundamental principle is to be applied in some controversial area. Accordingly, the attempt to apply the general principles of normative ethics to particular difficult or complex cases is itself an important part of moral philosophy. It is called applied ethics, and doing it well can be a quite challenging and subtle undertaking. Not surprisingly, the moral judgments offered for particularly difficult cases remain controversial. There are on-going philosophical debates, for example, over issues like the morality of capital punishment, abortion, and affirmative action. Indeed, in some cases entire specialized subfields have developed, devoted to problems in medical ethics, business ethics, and so on. I think in fact that the entire field of political philosophy can legitimately be viewed in this way, as one (vitally important) branch of applied ethics—one devoted to problems about the justification of the state, the use of power, and the merits of alternative forms of government.
Think for a moment about what it would mean to have a theory concerning, say, the morality of abortion. Among other things, such a theory would presumably indicate the circumstances (if any) in which abortion would be morally justified, and the circumstances (if any) in which it would be morally unjustified. That is to say, the theory would itself have a certain degree of generality, covering more than one specific type of case. Although a theory of abortion would be less general and less fundamental than the most basic principles of morality, a theory of abortion would still be more fundamental and more general than any particular judgment that might be derived from it concerning whether a particular mother in her particular circumstances would be justified in having an abortion.
What this means is that the distinction between normative ethics and applied ethics does not rest upon any kind of sharp line. Really what we have is something like a continuum: moral claims differ in their degree of generality; they can be ranked as more or less basic. Since most moral claims will lie somewhere in the vast middle of this continuum, it will be somewhat arbitrary or a matter of convenience whether we classify them as belonging to normative ethics or to applied ethics. In the light of this, some moral philosophers don't draw any distinction between normative ethics and applied ethics at all. They just talk about there being various theories in normative ethics—and they note that some of these theories are more general, and others are less so, some more basic, and others more derivative.
I have no real disagreement with those who prefer to talk this way. My purpose in introducing the notion of applied ethics was simply to bring out this point that substantive moral claims can themselves be more or less fundamental. The theories to be discussed in this book lie pretty firmly on the "more fundamental" side of the continuum. We will not be discussing topics like capital punishment, or euthanasia (mercy killing), or affirmative action, that lie much further down the "applied" side of the continuum. This is an important part of what I mean when I say that the topic of this book is normative ethics.
The other main area of moral philosophy is metaethics. Metaethics is concerned with answering second-order questions of the sort I indicated earlier. Consider, for example, the claim that killing is always wrong. So long as it is normative ethics that we are doing, what we are concerned with is the substantive question of whether this claim is correct: is killing always wrong, or must an exception be made for self-defense (or war, or capital punishment)? And who, exactly, is it wrong to kill? Humans, animals, plants? Similarly, we want to know whether the wrongness of killing is fundamental and ultimate—or can it be derived from some even more basic moral principle? These, as I say, are typical questions that can be raised about the claim from the standpoint of normative ethics.
But there are other questions—very different types of questions—that can be raised about this claim as well. For example, when someone claims that killing is always wrong, what exactly does the word "wrong" mean? Can we give an adequate definition of moral terms like "right," "wrong," "good," and "bad"? Similarly, the claim that killing is always wrong seems to be ascribing a property to acts of killing. (Compare the claim that "killing is always difficult," which ascribes to acts of killing the property of being difficult.) But what kind of property is "wrongness"? It doesn't seem to be a property of the sort that the five senses or the sciences can tell us about. But, then, is it a natural property or an empirical property at all? And if not, what other kind of property could it be? Furthermore, how can we know whether killing actually has this strange property? Indeed, how can we know anything about ethics at all? Are there really objective, moral facts, waiting to be known? If so, what kinds of facts are moral facts? How do they differ from ordinary, empirical facts? How do such moral facts fit into a world of scientific facts? And if there aren't really any moral facts, then just what is going on when someone makes a moral claim like the claim that killing is always wrong?
Obviously enough, questions of this sort are quite different from the substantive moral questions raised by normative ethics. Providing answers to these questions would not directly involve taking a position on the substantive content of morality—that is, which acts are required, which forbidden, what kinds of people are good, what kinds of people are bad, and so on. Rather, answering these questions would require taking a stand with regard to the nature of morality. What is the function of moral discourse? What is the place of values in the world of persons and things? What is the point of morality? These second-order questions are the concern of metaethics.
Unlike the distinction between normative ethics and applied ethics—where almost everyone agrees that there is no sharp line—many moral philosophers have thought that there is indeed a sharp logical distinction to be drawn between normative ethics and metaethics. Not only that, it has seemed to many as though whatever particular positions you happen to take in one of these areas (say, metaethics) this will still leave you completely free with regard to the positions you can take in the other area (that is, normative ethics). For example, it seems as though two people could agree completely concerning the nature of morality, the existence of moral truths, and so on, while still disagreeing with each other as to whether or not killing is always wrong. And similarly, two people might agree that killing is indeed always wrong, while holding radically different views concerning the nature of morality, the possibility of moral knowledge, and so forth. Accordingly, some philosophers have held that when doing either metaethics or normative ethics (including applied ethics) one can completely disregard the other area. (Indeed, having drawn a very sharp line between metaethics and normative ethics, some of these philosophers argued that the sole concern of moral philosophers qua philosophers should be with metaethics. Normative ethics was to be left to sermons and editorials; philosophers—it was claimed—could make no distinctive contributions to it.)
I think, however, that metaethics and normative ethics do not actually have anything like this kind of independence from one another. Here is an easy example. When doing normative ethics we try to defend and justify substantive moral claims. But to do this, obviously enough, we have to have views about what it is you need to do to provide a moral claim with a good defense. That is, in doing normative ethics we will be presupposing some kind of account—either a developed one or at least a working understanding of one—of justification in ethics. But the topic of justification in ethics is itself one that actually belongs to metaethics. In short, doing normative ethics requires having views about metaethical issues. What's more, depending on the details of your views about what counts as a good justification in ethics, it may well turn out that some substantive normative claims are easier to defend than others. So normative ethics and metaethics may not actually be independent of one another after all.
Of course, even if it is granted that in this and other ways your views in metaethics can have an influence on your views in normative ethics, it might still be true that there is indeed a sharp line to be drawn between these two areas of moral philosophy. After all, metaethics is concerned with the second-order questions about the nature and point of morality, while normative ethics is concerned with ground-level questions about how one ought to live. And it certainly seems as though there is a sharp distinction between these two different kinds of questions.
In fact, however, I believe that here too (as with the distinction between normative ethics and applied ethics) we are actually faced with a continuum rather than a sharp line. For as we go deeper in our attempt to articulate the fundamental moral principles, relatively specific first-order claims about the content of morality give way gradually to more general overall characterizations of morality's content; and as these in turn become more general still, we find ourselves making what increasingly come to seem like second-order claims about the very nature of morality. This is especially so when we attempt to provide a basis or foundation for the substantive moral claims of normative ethics. Such foundational theories will inevitably grow out of and appeal to larger metaethical conceptions of morality's purpose and point. That is, in the course of defending a given theory about the foundations of normative ethics, when we try to explain why it is that the various features of that theory should seem attractive and plausible, inevitably the claims we make will themselves simply be metaethical claims about the nature of morality. At a deep enough level, normative ethics does not merely draw upon metaethics—it simply becomes metaethics. (This point will, I hope, become clearer in the second half of the book, when we actually begin considering rival theories about the foundations of normative ethics.)
So there is a continuum here too. As soon as you begin to try to defend a normative claim within morality, you are inevitably making a "meta" claim about morality. Thus, the shift from a perspective that is purely first-order to a perspective that is at least partially second-order has begun. Theories may differ in the degree to which this second-order perspective dominates, but for the most part it is only a matter of degree.
Nonetheless, the fact remains that the focus of a discussion in moral philosophy will be quite different if one concentrates on abstract second-order questions about the nature of morality, rather than on the ground-level project of stating in general terms the content of morality and providing a basis for it. In this book, as I have said, the focus will be on attempts to state and defend substantive moral claims. This is the other important part of what I meant in saying that the topic of this book is normative ethics.
Let me hasten to add that in saying that this book will be about normative ethics and not applied ethics or metaethics, I certainly do not mean to be suggesting that these other areas of moral philosophy are not important. They are indeed important; and they are difficult as well. And, of course, as I have just been arguing, there aren't actually any sharp lines separating normative ethics from these other areas. But for all that, it seems possible and worthwhile to focus on normative ethics—and that is my intent.
Actually, however, the focus will be somewhat more narrow than that. I have suggested that the central question of moral philosophy as a whole, and of normative ethics in particular, is how one should live. I take this question to be sufficiently general that it is an open matter what an adequate answer would concentrate on. Plausibly enough, one might think that an adequate answer would primarily be concerned with issues about what one should do and how one should act. But one might hold that an adequate answer would concentrate instead on describing what kind of person one should be, rather than what one should do. And there are other possibilities as well. Ideally, no doubt, we would consider all the most important theories for each type of approach—making no assumption at the outset about which aspect is most central in answering how to live.
Of course, it is also plausible to think that a complete normative theory will have something to say about each of these aspects—that is, about what to do, what kind of person to be, and so on. Yet even if this is right, it might be that in picking one of these aspects to concentrate upon, we run the risk of failing to present some of these theories in the strongest possible light. This is, however, a risk I am going to take. I am going to organize our examination of the rival theories of normative ethics by focusing on the question of how one should act. Which acts are morally better or worse than others? Which acts are morally permissible, which ones morally required, and which ones morally forbidden—and what makes them so? Our central concern in this book will be examining rival theories on this score. Other a...