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?
Bernard Williams’s Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy 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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.