Innocence and Experience
It is not surprising that exasperated laymen should wonder about the point of moral philosophy; the self-confident often can’t see why intellectuals should struggle to reach conclusions that any decent citizen learned in childhood, while the unconfident may not care for the corrosive effects of all inquiry. It’s rather more surprising that philosophers themselves have often doubted whether moral philosophy was a branch of philosophy at all. Whatever Hume meant when he observed that “reason is and always must be the slave of the passions,” it certainly sounded deflationary, a reminder that moral judgment was less well-founded than our views about mathematics or natural science. John Stuart Mill is best known as a social and political theorist of a utilitarian bent; yet his System of Logic runs to two stout volumes of his collected works, while his essay Utilitarianism runs to barely sixty pages.
Keynes described G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica as the Bible of Bloomsbury. Yet its philosophical content mostly amounted to attacks on philosophers who supposed that there could be arguments in ethics at all. Its impact was an emotional one, and derived from Moore’s scrupulous description of his unargued intuitions of what was, as a matter of fact, good—friendship and beauty. None of this is reassuring. If philosophy is supposed to provide us with good reasons for our beliefs, it is disappointing to learn that in this most important area, it has so little to tell us.
Recent writers have reacted very differently to the thought that philosophy can do little to ground our moral convictions in anything beyond themselves. Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?1 marks the end of a roundabout journey from 1950s Anglicanism to 1990s Catholicism, which has been sustained throughout by the conviction that moral reasoning can only take place within a particular way of life, and absolutely not outside a traditional setting of some sort. Negatively Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature2 has followed the same course in denying that philosophy can of itself provide foundations for a form of belief. For Rorty, all beliefs are justifiable only within some particular society’s habits of belief. In recent essays he says that he wishes us to read this claim optimistically, as saying that our belief in toleration, democracy, the sanctity of private life, and the other liberal pieties is as solidly founded as nuclear physics or computer science, though he rather spoils the effect by insisting that all are only “ways of talking” popular in our liberal capitalist society.3
Bernard Williams’s Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy4 denies that relativism makes any sense when applied to scientific reasoning. Nonetheless, Williams also doubts that a particular set of moral principles could be shown to be literally the “dictates of reason.” Instead of calling on his readers to subscribe to Thomism with Alasdair MacIntyre, or to settle for the virtues of liberal capitalism with Richard Rorty, Williams calls for a less rationalistic and less ambitious ethical inquest into the…
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