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Entries in Comparative Ethics (4)


Rejecting Morality

Continuing my efforts to look at the notion of moral valuing and the different explanations of how it works that it inspires, I recently had occasion to read Beyond Morality by Richard Garner. Actually I read his updated on-line version, Beyond Beyond Morality, which seems to be his effort to improve his earlier published book. Presumably his basic thesis hasn't changed although he has attempted to amplify and strengthen it for his readers. In a nutshell, the book rejects morality as such based on his embrace of the Humean picture of moral judgment being grounded solely in sentiment. But unlike others influenced by the Humean account, such as the non-cognitivists (emotivism, prescriptivism) or the subjectivists (those who ground moral discourse in individual preferences and those who ground it in consensus preference within particular groups), and, of course, unlike intuitionists like Michael Huemer (who argue that moral claims are cognitively respectable because they address rationally knowable facts derived from our concepts, themselves), Garner (like J. L. Mackie before him) rejects the idea that moral claims state any facts at all. There is no moral knowledge, he argues, and that's a good thing . . .

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Four Naturalistic Strategies in Accounting for Ethical Claims

The intuitionist account of value claims, which G. E. Moore presented in answer to the is/ought dichotomy first flagged by David Hume, proposes that there are objective facts about what’s good, especially the good thing to do, and that they hinge on a private experience we each have of the good. Just as we know colors by seeing them, so, this thesis goes, we know good actions and objectives by recognizing them (if and when they manifest themselves to us through sensory input). That is, according to Moore, the term “good” can be understood as denoting a property of a thing, just as a term like “yellow” denotes a property which some things may have, namely the property of being the color we call “yellow.” But where yellowness is, as Moore put it, a “natural property” which we know through our direct experience of it (when we see it) goodness counts as a “non-natural property” because it’s not inherent in any of the sensory inputs we have, although there is something about the way we have those sensory inputs that prompts in us the recognition of the presence of goodness alongside the "natural" properties we observe through our sensory inputs.

That is, on this view, goodness is knowable directly through our experience just as the sight of yellow in a thing is. This makes use of the Kantian sense of “intuit,” i.e., of having knowledge of something without the intermediation of other knowledge, of something else. In other words, we don’t need a reason to reach the conclusion that something is good, if it is, because we recognize it directly (just as we recognize that yellow things are yellow).

But Moore offered no explanation of what it is to know what’s good in the way we know what’s yellow and later thinkers, like Philippa Foot, questioned the usage of “intuition” as Moore presented it. . . .

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MORAL REASONING: A "Wittgensteinian" Approach

Over the weekend I've done a bit of searching through what's left of my books since Hurricane Sandy swept through our community and destroyed a decades old library I had built up which my wife had insisted I keep in our basement. I found a volume published in 1969 that I had once picked up in a second hand bookstore back in the late seventies/early eighties but never had time to read (or perhaps I just lost track of it). It's called Moral Reasoning by a British philosopher I hadn't heard of before named R. W. Beardsmore. I'd obviously picked it up because of my interest, even then, in moral philosophy. Perhaps I started to read it and laid it aside but I have no recollection of doing so. Must have meant to get to it but lost track of it. Anyway, I read it today and was pleasantly surprised. Beardsmore makes an attempt to give an account of moral valuing from a Wittgensteinian perspective. And it's a good try, too.

He begins by taking on the two prominent British moral philosophers of his era, R. M. Hare and Philippa Foot, maintaining that both have the matter quite wrong. . . .

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The Moral Way

What is it that we want to find in intentions, manifested by agents through their actions, to warrant ascriptions of moral value?

Although we may consider a great many issues – from how we comport ourselves in public or private, to what we have for dinner and whom we choose to marry – to be moral questions, there’s such a broad range of these that it’s not a simple matter to sort them all out – or to distinguish between them. Sometimes what we deem “moral” is just what fits with certain codes of conduct we acknowledge although, at other times, we may think it right to dispute the codes themselves. If the moral dimension involves assessment of intent, can the intent to abide by a given code be enough to establish a judgment of moral goodness?

If the code itself can be questioned, on what basis can a presumably right intent prevail where even particular moral codes are subject to moral consideration? A code that urges vengeance in blood, for instance, might seem morally unappealing to many in the modern world even as it may remain compellingly attractive to members of cultures in which it represents the norm. Just being the norm cannot be enough to render something morally good then.

What then do we look to? And how do we reconcile conflicting moral claims and codes?

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