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.