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Making morality work


To: Mark H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Making morality work
Date: 2 November 2007 13:08

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 25 October, with your essay towards the Associate Award, 'Making morality work.'

I have problems with this essay. It seems to me only tangentially 'philosophical'. I can see the point that a rational defence of morality does not necessarily provide the best means to inculcate morality, either in oneself or in society at large: but that is just one point.

To take an extreme 'thought experiment'. Suppose there was a hypnotic drug which made people very suggestible. It is only necessary to take this drug once (its use is carefully regulated by the Government Ministry of Ethics). You are administered the drug, programmed and ready to function as a fully ethical member of the moral community. All in one day.

This scenario raises questions of ethics which require philosophical discussion: for example, you could be just as easily programmed/ hypnotised to do evil as to do good. Furthermore, who is to decide on the weighty question of just what is good? do you go in with a shopping list of traits which you would like to have inculcated? or do the philosophers sitting on the government ethical panel decide? And so on.

Well, that's just a mad thought experiment. However, if you are looking for something philosophical, then it really does become important how one's view of ethics, or indeed one's meta-ethical theory, impacts on views about moral education: which is a recognizably philosophical topic.

To give one example which you may not have encountered. There is a very influential British moral philosopher called R.M. Hare (who died not so long ago). In a series of books, Hare presents the case for 'prescriptivism', a meta-ethical theory according to which moral statements are disguised commands (prescriptions). Later on, Hare developed his theory into a theory of preference utilitarianism, arguing that the only 'moral' principle capable of being rationally defended is the principle of 'non-fanaticism'.

Hare also considered the impact of his theory on moral education. Consistently with his preference utilitarian view, he held that it is not a good idea for lay persons to think too much about the foundations of ethics. Moral education should be in the hands of philosophers who understand what can be said in the classroom and what it is better not to say. Children should be taught 'principles' and how to apply them. It is not part of this process to learn the ultimate philosophical/ rational basis for these principles.

This bears out your original point in a particularly dramatic way. As it happens, I find Hare's view repugnant. The role of 'inculcating principles' is just one issue in moral education which could be usefully discussed.

A very different meta-ethical view is provided by virtue ethics, which you call upon heavily in your essay. The very least you can do, however, is to go into the foundations of virtue ethics in order to explain the connection with the question of moral education. Some reference to the leading virtue ethicist Alasdair McIntyre ('On Virtue' Duckworth) would not go amiss.

(Incidentally, one point you make about 'embedded' habits of morality which Aristotle would disagree with strongly is what you say about guilt. Aristotle distinguishes between the man who is moral -- who would never think to steal -- and the man who is merely 'continent'. The continent man, desires to steal but is prevented from doing so by feelings of guilt. We should all wish to be moral and not merely continent, in Aristotle's sense.)

Consequentialism (and not just preference utilitarianism) is saddled with the problem -- discussed at length by Bernard Williams -- that for consequentialist reasons we don't want people to go too far in reasoning consequentially. In the famous example cited as an argument against utilitarianism, if a house is on fire and Archbishop Fenelon and his chambermaid are in different rooms, you will save the chambermaid because she is your mother, despite the better consequences for the happiness of humanity at large if the Archbishop is saved. For ultimately consequentialist reasons, we *want* to cultivate human beings who are incapable of sacrificing their mothers for the greater good. This presents the consequentialist with somewhat of a paradox.

As I have tried to show, in order to make your essay work you need to go far more into the contrast between different meta-ethical views and their consequences for moral education. These consequences are not necessarily a matter of entailment -- which is what makes the discussion so difficult to handle. Saying the right things is not enough. You need to find philosophical issues around the question of moral education to grapple with.

All the best,