Morality and Conflict
Stuart Hampshire’s main target, in the subtle and beautifully written essays collected here, is the ancient but still current idea that moral conflict is an illusion, that we can always find, in every situation, one choice or decision that leaves us nothing to regret. Aristotle held one version of that idea: he thought that philosophical reasoning could reveal the place of each virtue and experience in the ideally best life, which would have the right degree of each and the right balance among them. Utilitarians have another version: they argue that all questions about how people ought to behave, from the most intimate personal decisions to political decisions affecting many millions, must be made on one standard alone. People ought always to do what will produce the greatest overall happiness, or the greatest “utility,” according to some other conception of what that means. A certain form of conventionalism offers a third version: it insists that morality is nothing more than falling in with the traditions, practices, and codes that define each moral community; since morality has no purchase outside conventions of that sort, someone who behaves as his community requires, on this view, can have no grounds for moral regret.
These various doctrines contradict one another, but each offers a single, ultimate test that promises unambiguous solutions to moral problems. Hampshire argues that this promise is false: he insists that ordinary moral experience is a matter of conflict between incompatible methods and standards and impulses and goals, and that conflict of this kind is pervasive and irreducible. He exposes fallacies and misperceptions that he believes have contributed to the conflict-free tradition he opposes. He notices, for example, the use Aristotle made of the medical analogy: just as medical science can discover, by examining the human body, what foods are everywhere and always nutritious for it, so, Aristotle thought, philosophers can discover, from reflection on man’s mental and emotional nature, what combination of experiences and virtues will everywhere and always provide him with the most flourishing possible life. The analogy is mistaken because, among other reasons, what a person will and can conceive as valuable to his life will be influenced, in ways his digestion is not, by the contingent culture and traditions of his own particular society.
The utilitarians made a different kind of mistake. They were not only arrogant in thinking human happiness was all that could matter, but also unreasonably optimistic in supposing that science and technology could predict the consequences of elaborate social changes with enough confidence to let decisions rest entirely on those predictions. Some of the most terrible crimes of military adventurism, Hampshire believes, were the result of utilitarian attitudes.
His argument is mainly phenomenological, however, drawn from reflecting on ordinary moral experience rather than from demonstrating fallacies in his opponents’ work. He shows how the monistic assumption that one method or standard which eliminates conflicts must finally govern all moral decisions ignores the complexity of the different ways people think about what to…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.