What is this thing called Philosophy?
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What is this thing called Philosophy?

Duncan Pritchard, Duncan Pritchard

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eBook - ePub

What is this thing called Philosophy?

Duncan Pritchard, Duncan Pritchard

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Über dieses Buch

What is this thing called Philosophy? is the definitive textbook for all who want a thorough introduction to the field. It introduces philosophy using a question-led approach that reflects the discursive nature of the discipline. Edited by Duncan Pritchard, each section is written by a high-profile contributor focusing on a key area of philosophy, and contains three or four question-based chapters offering an accessible point of engagement.

The core areas of philosophy covered are:

  • Ethics
  • Political Philosophy
  • Aesthetics
  • Epistemology
  • Philosophy of Mind
  • Metaphysics
  • Philosophy of Science
  • Philosophy of Religion
  • The Meaning of Life.

The accompanying Routledge companion website features valuable online resources for both instructors and students including links to audio and video material, multiple-choice questions, interactive flashcards, essay questions and annotated further reading. This is the essential textbook for students approaching the study of philosophy for the first time.

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Part I
Michael Brady
The study and practice of philosophy is valuable for many reasons, and not least because it helps to foster independent thinking. And being an independent thinker seems especially valuable when it comes to dealing with moral or ethical questions, such as: How should I live my life? What kind of person should I be? One reason for this is that our moral opinions are largely inherited from our parents, peers, society at large. For example, most of us think that there is nothing wrong with using animals for food. Given that most of us have grown up eating meat in a society where nature is tailored for human needs, this is hardly surprising. But perhaps we should give more thought to our inherited views. After all, the fact that a belief is the product of upbringing and socialisation is no guarantee that it is correct – think, for instance, about moral views that at one time supported slavery. One reason to think philosophically about moral and ethical issues is, then, to ensure that we are not making similar mistakes. Another reason is that independent thinking about moral matters helps us to live an independent life: for thinking and deciding solely on the basis of values that we have inherited from others seems rather like living a life in accordance with what others tell you to do; and this isn’t the best kind of life for a human being to live. So being an independent thinker about moral questions is especially valuable, if we want to avoid moral mistakes, and if we want to live our own life.
But how do we become independent thinkers about ethical issues? Indeed, what is it for something to be an ethical issue? In this Part I hope to answer these questions. I’ll begin by saying a little about what ethics is, how it contrasts with other subjects, and about how it is done. I’ll then take you on a tour of the three main types of moral philosophy, considering on the way some of the most important ethical issues and questions in each, outlining what some of the most famous moral philosophers have said about these, and explaining problems with and objections to what these philosophers have said. By organising the Part in this way I hope to illustrate that the path to independent thinking about moral issues isn’t one that we take alone: good thinking, in morality as well as other subjects, is guided by the views of others. Nevertheless, by raising objections I also hope to illustrate that truly independent thinking begins when we start to question what others have said, and refuse to be guided by them alone.
what is ethics?
First, a terminological issue: in the introduction I sometimes referred to ethics and at other times to moral philosophy. Are these synonymous? Some would say not, holding that ethics is a broader subject than moral philosophy. But for most philosophers, the terms can be used pretty much interchangeably, and so in what follows I’ll do so too.
So what is ethics? Very roughly, ethics is the study of the codes of conduct or systems of rules that govern our behaviour, especially as this affects people and other sentient beings. We can try to make this less abstract by contrasting ethics with other codes or systems. Law, for instance, is a system of rules that governs how we ought to act. What distinguishes ethics or morality from law? One difference is that ethical codes and laws can apply to different things: it is plausible to think that morality requires that I keep my promises; but I have no legal obligation to keep my promises, unless I’m on the witness stand, say. I might, conversely, be subject to laws that diverge from what I morally ought to do: suppose I live in a country where it is illegal to do something that isn’t immoral, such as criticise the royal family. A second reason is that the sanctions for violations of rules and standards are different in each case. If I break my promise to Joe, then Joe might be upset with me, and tell others not to trust me. But this differs in kind from the kind of sanction the state imposes if I am caught violating its laws. A third reason is that our motives for abiding by morality and law are different: my conscience might motivate me to keep my promise to Joe; but people are law abiding usually for self-interested reasons.
There are also similarities between religious and moral codes. Both are broadly concerned with individual well-being and behaviour with respect to other people. And many of the things that we think are morally right (or wrong) are also claimed by religion to be right (or wrong). Nevertheless, many people want to separate morality from religion. One reason has, again, to do with motives: many people, believers and non-believers alike, are motivated to act morally without any thought about such conduct being commanded by God. Another reason, explained by Plato in the dialogue Euthyphro, is that the idea that morality upon God’s commands faces a difficulty. For either God commands us to do things because they are right, in which case rightness is distinct from what God commands; or things are right only because God commands them, in which case God’s commands appear to be arbitrary or made for no reason, which undermines the view of God as perfectly good.
In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, the titular character claims that he knows what ‘piety’ is. Piety is nowadays a term for religious reverence. But for Plato it was a matter of fulfilling our duties with respect to the gods and other humans. We might think of it as ‘morally right’. Euthyphro suggests that ‘the pious is what all the gods love, and the opposite, what all the gods hate, is impious’ (9e). At this point Socrates raises the dilemma, asking if ‘the pious is loved by the gods because it is pious, or is something pious because it is loved by the gods?’ (10a). The worry with the latter is that if God commands us to do things but not because they are right, then God is in a sense making up moral rules for no moral reason. This is problematic: why would a loving God do this? And why should we obey such rules, even if they stem from a loving God? Consider an analogy: suppose that loving parents command their children to do certain things, and forbid them from doing others, for no good reason. Why would loving parents do this? And why should children obey such commands, even if they are given by loving parents? If the former, then what is morally right is independent of what God commands. But then presumably the study of what is morally right should be independent of the study of what God commands. If so, then ethics and theology are distinct.
A more positive answer to our question is to list a number of things that are thought to be moral rules, and then say something about what these rules have in common. Traditional moral rules include ‘negative’ duties not to lie, steal, harm, manipulate, or maltreat others, and ‘positive’ duties to help those in need, to be honest, and promote justice. So we might say that morality is a system of rules like these. Do these rules have anything in common? On one account, a feature of moral rules is that they are ‘overriding’. This means that when moral rules conflict with other things I have reason to do, the moral rules are the ones that we should follow. Suppose, for example, that I’ve promised to give Joe a lift, and so have a moral duty to do this. Suppose now that a more attractive option arises: that Jenny, whom I like a great deal, asks me to forget Joe and go out on a date with her instead. Most people think that despite the attractiveness of a date with Jenny, I should keep my promise to Joe, because moral considerations are more important than self-interested considerations. Another feature that moral codes are typically thought to have is ‘universality’. This means that a moral rule is one that applies to everyone in the same circumstances; so if it is wrong for me to break my promise to Joe, then it would be wrong for anyone to break a promise in similar circumstances. A third feature is that our motives for abiding by moral rules are given by the rules themselves: I should keep my promise to Joe because I promised, rather than (say) because it will be good for me. So moral rules seem to be overriding, universal, and the kind of things one should obey because they are moral rules. And ethics is, again roughly, the study of such systems of rules.
We can say more than this, however, because moral philosophy can be divided up into three further subdisciplines: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. Metaethics is the study of moral practice itself. It is concerned with, and aims to understand, what exactly is going on when we engage in moral talk and behaviour. Normative ethics is concerned with different theories about what is right and wrong; these theories attempt to say what it is that right actions have in common, in virtue of which they count as right. And applied ethics focuses more on practice than theory, in that it is concerned with real-life and often controversial issues that humans face, such as capital punishment, euthanasia, animal rights, abortion, and famine. Applied ethics involves thinking about these issues, and in a way that is informed by the different normative theories. But the relation between theory and practical issues is not strictly one way. For as we’ll see, applied issues provide test cases for moral theory.
• Ethics or moral philosophy is the study of codes of conduct that govern our behaviour.
• Morality can be distinguished from law; and moral rules are independent of religious commands.
• Moral rules are thought to be overriding, universal, and to be obeyed because they are moral rules.
• There are three subdisciplines in ethics: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics.
1 Give examples of things that are or have been illegal but are not immoral; and give examples of things that are immoral but are not illegal.
2 Explain in your own words why morality probably isn’t based on religion.
3 Are there any other features – other than overridingness universality, and the connection to a particular motive – that make a rule a moral rule?
4 Explain in your own words the basic differences between metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics.
Bennett, Christopher (2010) What is this Thing Called Ethics? (London: Routledge). [Another helpful introductory book on morality and moral thinking.]
Rachels, James and Rachels, Stuart (2011) The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 7th edn (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing). [This thorough and comprehensive introduction has a helpful first chapter on defining ‘morality’.]
what is metaethics?
• How do we do metaethics?
• Moral disagreement
• Moral rightness and wrongness
• Moral motivation
Philosophical methodology is puzzling to those who aren’t philosophers, at least compared with other subjects, where we have a pretty good idea of what studying these involves. After all, historians have their texts to focus on, English students their novels, psychologists their brain scans. So how do we do metaethics?
To answer this question, note that morality has certain distinctive features, and those who study metaethics try to make the best sense they can of these. One is that people disagree about moral issues such as capital punishment, animal experimentation, and abortion. Another is that people seem to assume that moral issues are ones on which people can be right or wrong. These features are related: unless you think that you are right and the person you are arguing with is wrong, then why bother arguing with them? A third is that morality is closely tied to behaviour.
Metaethics is the attempt to make sense of a practice that has these (and other) features; and metaethical theories can be distinguished in virtue of the kinds of explanations of the features they offer. But this means that we can think of what metaethics is in terms of what metaethicists do. In what follows I’ll illustrate this by showing how different theories fare when it comes to capturing these features.
It is obvious that people disagree about moral issues. Some people think this casts doubt upon the idea that there is any such thing as ‘objective moral truth’. An objective truth is one that depends upon the nature and feature of what the truth is about (the object) rather than upon the nature of the person who holds a particular view (the subject). Some truths are objective: suppose I say that broccoli is high in vitamin C. This is true, but its truth depends solely upon the nature of broccoli itself. But suppose I say that I dislike broccoli: this is a subjective truth, since its truth depends upon a fact about me, namely that I find the taste of broccoli unpleasant. Now objective truths are the kinds of things that people tend to agree about, at least if they have enough information. But moral disagreement persists, even if people have access to all of the relevant information: this suggests that morality isn’t objective, but is instead subjective.
This latter idea is very popular – hence the common refrain that morality is ‘just a matter of subjective opinion’. A well-known and related position is moral relativism, which holds that morality isn’t objective but is ‘relative’ to the dominant views within cultures, societies, or other such groupings. This means that a certain practice – such as female infanticide – might be morally right relative to the prevalent moral code of society A, but morally wrong relative to the prevalent moral code of society B. But there is no objective fact of the matter about the morality of female infanticide, independent of how the practice is viewed by different groups of people. And support for moral relativism comes from the obvious and undoubted fact that different cultures do hold different moral opinions and engage in different moral behaviour.
Despite its widespread acceptance, moral relativism is a deeply problematic metaethical view. For one thing, the fact that different cultures or groups disagree isn’t enough to support, by itself, the idea that there is no objective truth. Groups, like people, can get things wrong. For another, the fact that people disagree actually seems incompatible with relativism. Suppose I claim that female infanticide is wrong, and you claim that it is sometimes morally permissible. If relativism is correct, then when we are faithfully reporting the dominant views in our respective cultures, both of our statements are true, and so we aren’t really disagreeing after all. Moreover, relativism cannot explain the close connection between morality and motivation. If my moral judgements report the majority views in my culture, then this connection is broken, since there is no close or necessary connection between the majority views and my action: perhaps I think the majority of people in my culture stupid.
Subjectivism itself fares better than relativism. For the subjectivist, morality is a matter of subjective opinion, so that when someone says that it is wrong to break promises, she is reporting or expressing what she, as an individual, thinks about breaking promises. On this view, there is moral disagreement because different people have different subjective opinions. To this extent, morality is like other areas where we have subjective opinions and where we disagree, such as taste. And just as we ...