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Friday, December 7, 2018


Let me add a few words about a subject on which Jerry Fresia, David Palmeter, and S. Wallerstein have had something to say.

Over the past two and a half millennia, there have been three broad sets of questions addressed by philosophers under the general heading of Ethics or Moral Philosophy.  The earliest question, very much front and center in the writings of Plato, is “What is the nature of the good life?”  The Greeks themselves offered an array of answers:  A life of reason uncontaminated by passion or desire;  A life in which desire has its place but is subordinated to reason;  A life free of pain;  A life that includes as much pleasure as possible [these last two pessimistic and optimistic versions of the same answer];  A life of honor.

The second question, quite different from the first is, roughly:  Is there a rule or a technique by the use of which we can make hard decisions in which it is not clear what we ought to do because there are weighty considerations or strong arguments sending us in opposed directions?  The ethical theory known as Utilitarianism is the best known answer to this question.  It offers some hope of transforming moral disagreements into processes of calculation.  Not surprisingly, its deployment most often occurs in debates about public policy rather than in private deliberations about individual action.  Bentham and Mill, in the English speaking philosophical community, are the names most often associated with this view.

The third question, identified with Kant, is:  “Can we find a moral principle binding on all rational agents as such for which a persuasive argument can be given entirely a priori, and hence grounded in reason alone?

In the jargon that has become widespread among academic philosophers, these three approaches are labeled Virtue Ethics, Teleological Ethics, and Deontological Ethics.  Since they seek answers to three quite different questions, they do not exactly stand in opposition to one another.  It is not at all odd to argue about what the correct answer is to a question once it has been asked, but it is, I should think, a trifle odd to argue about what question ought to be asked. 

Plato’s Dialogues, particularly the early and middle ones, present us with brilliant images of individuals who, in their life choices and modes of self-presentation, embody competing visions of the Good Life.  Although the Dialogues are filled with arguments – indeed they seem to consist of nothing but – in the end I think it is Plato’s genius to elicit from us the response “Ah, yes, Socrates is the sort of person I should strive to be if only I have the courage and the honesty to do it.”

Bentham and Mill leave us thinking, “Ah, that is a good way to resolve hard cases and determine, taking all in all, how we ought as a community to choose and act.”

And Kant inspires in at least some of us the thought, “Now I understand the grounds and justification for what I already believed I ought to do.”  Indeed, he said that the Moral Law is no more than a formal statement of the old rule, Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.


Michael S said...

Why would it be "odd to argue about what question ought to be asked"?

Aside from the general truth that lots of philosophy consists in arguing over the question, lots of philosophers have argued for or against the very asking (or at least, the phrasing) of all of these particular questions. Bernard Williams, Rorty, Raymond Geuss - just to mention three recent philosophers - don't accept the legitimacy and/or worth of asking all of these questions.

Indeed, a whole strain of Marxism, as I'm sure you're aware, bangs on about not needing to ask certain questions, or the fact that us still ask such questions in itself means we're going wrong.

It's not a bad view, it seems to me, to write off the third as ludicrous, regard the second as misguided if it's intended to be more than a very local heuristic (and not a question best answered by philosophers!), and to therefore regard the first question as really the only one that's worth asking and worth attempting to answer philosophically (but, then, again, plenty of other disciplines and perspectives are going to need to weigh in, other than philosophy).

Enam el Brux said...

And then there is "Leiter, Brian, Disagreement, Anti-Realism About Reasons, and Inference to the Best Explanation (August 6, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

I'll include the abstract:

"I[Prof Leiter, not me, of course] revisit, refine and defend an inference to the best explanation (IBE) argument for anti-realism about reasons for acting based on the history of intractable disagreement in moral philosophy. The four key premises of the argument are: 1. If there were objective reasons for action, epistemically-well-situated observers would eventually converge upon them after two thousand years; 2. Contemporary philosophers, as the beneficiaries of two thousand years of philosophy, are epistemically well-situated observers; 3. Contemporary philosophers have not converged upon reasons for action; 4. Conclusion: there are no objective reasons for action (IBE from the first three premises). The key premises of the IBE are (1) sentimentalism; (2) non-cognitivism about basic affects; and (3) philosophical arguments for what our reasons for action are always involve arguments that depend on a basic intuitive moral judgment (that can be explained in terms of a basic non-cognitive affect). All these premises are explored in detail, and various objections addressed."

s. wallerstein said...

If it's odd to argue about which of the three questions should be asked, as you claim, and I don't disagree, how do we decide which question of the three to ask?

Do we flip a coin? Does it depend on our personality? On the fact that each question will elicit different answers and we know in advance which answer we wish to elicit?

Dean said...

Wasn't the comment about arguing about which question to ask just an acknowledgement of divisions of labor in the academy? Some folks specialize in one bucket of questions, others in others. A debate about that division doesn't advance the work respecting any of the questions.

Michael S said...

Dean, that's fair reply - but my point was that some very smart, perfectly serious philosophers have regarded the third question as not worth asking by *anybody*. And the second is in fact implicitly universalised - "is there", for whom? - and so unless it's qualified and localised, in which case it's not the same question, then it too falls under the not-implausibly ludicrous.

It's at least arguable, is the point. Certainly not odd to argue over it.