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Foundations of ethics and the limits of philosophy


To: Andrew K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Foundations of ethics and the limits of philosophy
Date: 17th December 2010 13:09

Dear Andy,

Thank you for your email of 14 December, with your essay towards the Associate Award entitled, 'The foundations of ethics and the limits of philosophy'.

This is a good piece of work, which is well up to the standard of the Associate. I think that the topic is viable, and although I disagree with your conclusions you have made a strong enough case. Someone who had not done much moral philosophy before would learn a lot from reading this essay. You explain yourself clearly and you are prepared to take a stand on the view you hold to be correct.

As it happens, my view is almost the mirror image of yours. While you take the foundation of ethics to lie in empirical inquiry -- psychology, sociology, perhaps evolutionary theory (though you don't mention this) -- you are prepared to accept that considerations of virtue ethics, the utilitarian weighing of consequences have a role to play. My view would be that the foundations of ethics are a priori (though not along Kantian lines) but that empirical inquiry has an important subsidiary role.

However, as I said, it isn't important whether we disagree or not. I would just like to see you make the strongest possible case.

Right at the beginning you state a fundamental assumption: ethics is concerned with promoting the flourishing of human beings. However, there is another assumption which you make which is no less important, which emerges in your critique of Aristotelian virtue ethics, utilitarianism and deontology: the assumption that the aim, or indeed the sole rationale of ethical theory is to enable us to make ethical decisions which would have been difficult or impossible without the aid of such a theory. That's how ethics contributes to human knowledge. It is objective, because the considerations appealed to do not depend on what this or that person, or this or that society, prefers or wants. Human flourishing, just like human health or human knowledge -- arguably both components of human flourishing -- is objectively measurable.

This to some extent forces Aristotle into a Procrustean mould alongside utilitarianism and Kantian ethics which puts virtue ethics somewhat at a disadvantage. For Aristotle, the virtuous man does the right thing as a matter of course. Aristotle's concern is with determining the nature of human virtue as well as understanding in a philosophically deep way the nature of human decision making. When he talks about the 'golden mean', he is not seeking to provide some kind of reliable recipe for correct action, but rather describing the conceptual landscape of our moral vocabulary. The crucial question concerns the kinds of things one attends to, the requisite skills that one needs to deploy, in order to be able to find the 'golden mean' in a particular case.

Consider archery. You must not aim too high or too low. Well, that's obvious. So where do you aim? The skilled archer takes many factors into consideration, but an essential part of this skill consists of abilities which cannot be quantified, but are acquired through long training. Why can't the same be true of ethics? To make the right decision requires a certain kind of practical wisdom. Lacking wisdom, no amount of 'scientific' investigation is an adequate substitute. Well, that may be the view of a virtue ethicist but you disagree. There are too many urgent decisions to make, and as much as we would like to promote Aristotelian practical wisdom, there has to be a better way than either finding someone wise to consult or waiting until we become wise ourselves.

That's why I think you need to place more emphasis on your claim that the ultimate aim of ethical theory is as a decision making tool.

Other points.

You say, 'I can't find any reason to accept that [the flourishing life] must consist in rational activity in accordance with virtue... why couldn't the purpose of humans be simply to maximise pleasure?' Yet, surely Aristotle has an answer along the right lines, which is that our capacity for intelligent activity is the main thing that accounts for the peculiar and indeed unique nature of human flourishing. Nietzsche, freezing in his attic room, plagued by eye and stomach problems, knew that as he wrote his philosophical work, he was attaining the highest standard that human flourishing is able to attain. Of course, there's much that psychologists can say about that, which would justify our judgement that Nietzsche was not self-deceived in that respect.

It could be argued that your discussion of relativism shows a possible weakness in your approach. Why do we have to insist that scientific inquiry must converge on a single recipe for living (as we require scientific theories in general to converge on the truth)? The case of slavery and its supposed justifications would be a bad example of relativism. We don't have to take examples of 'relative' moral judgements at face value. Why can't there be room for radical difference between choices of life-styles, perhaps choices which determine the character of particular societies, which are incommensurable from the point of view of science? Are you going to decide by means of scientific inquiry, for example, whether or not it is better for people to practice religion? (I speak as an atheist). Mill was prepared to allow a voice to religion, but only on the condition that its defenders were prepared to engage in 'free rational debate'!

A point of interpretation: Kant's thesis is 'based around the objectivity of moral law and the subjectivity of good will'. That doesn't mean anything to me. The presence or absence of good will is equivalent to an action being performed out of respect for the moral law or for a different motive. What is 'subjective' is merely the difficulty in empirically determining this in a particular case (i.e. determining a person's 'true' motivation). Also, Kant didn't say that 'other people should never be used as a means to an end'. He said that other people should never be used 'merely' as a means to an end. That's a crucial distinction, which allows me, for example, to use you as a means to my livelihood and allows you to use me as a means to gaining the Associate Award.

All the best for 2011!