by Daniel A. Kaufman
We have finished with our survey of traditional ethical theories, in my Theories of Ethics course, and the students have been given a whopper of an exam on Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and Mill. I don’t envy them. (Though neither do I envy myself, as I will be spending a good portion of my Spring Break grading those exams.)
What this means, however, is that we are on to the “contemporary” portion of the course, in which we cover material from the 20th century. (It is a testament to just how old a discipline philosophy is that we refer to material a century old as “contemporary.”) I won’t deny being excited about it. Having taught philosophy at one university or college or another since 1993, it is a challenge to keep the traditional ethical theories fresh. 20th century ethics, however, is another matter entirely. Not only is there an incredible abundance of it – and a lot of it very good – so one can teach the period again and again with very little repetition, but it is not the sort of material that one really can teach in introductory level or general education courses, which means that one has taught it much less often, at least, if one is not a rock star at a top, R1 institution … which, of course, is the overwhelming majority of us professional philosophers.
There are many threads one could trace through the ethical theorizing of the last century, and one way, certainly, would be to follow the development of Consequentialism and Deontology in the work of contemporary Utilitarians and Kantians. I chose not to do this, in part for selfish reasons – I would find it terribly boring, not to mention the fact that I think both traditions get morality mostly wrong – but also because what strikes me as the most significant thread in 20th century ethics is the one that involves questioning the entire modern moral philosophical paradigm and asks whether ethics largely took a wrong turn during the Enlightenment. And as there are a number of very interesting and notably, very different reasons why one might think this, it means that even though one is following a single thread, the work that one will encounter is highly diverse in nature. So, I’ve chosen the following 20th century works to make up the second half of my course:
H.A. Prichard, “Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?” (1912)
W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good. (1930)
A.J. Ayer, “Critique of Ethics and Theology,” from Language, Truth, and Logic. (1936)
G.E.M. Anscombe, “Modern Moral Philosophy.” (1958)
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue. (1981)
We finished Prichard’s essay, just before we left for Spring Break. The class was pretty quiet throughout, though I don’t know whether this was because the piece is quite difficult (more because of its subtlety than because it is technical or complex) or because they found it underwhelming. It might not have been the best idea to preface the lectures with the statement that Prichard’s is one of the most devastating critiques of traditional moral philosophy I have ever read, but it is, so I said it.
Prichard argues that the aims of traditional, modern moral philosophy are very similar to those of modern epistemology, in that they are an attempt to overcome skeptical doubts. Modern epistemology, which begins with Descartes, is a response to the fact that we can doubt many of the things that we think we know to be true, and the theorizing that follows is an effort to find a procedure by which we can demonstrate that we really do know what we think we know. And Prichard thinks that similarly, modern moral philosophy’s primary aim is to find a way by which to demonstrate that what we think is our duty, really is obligatory.
Just as the recognition that the doing of our duty often vitally interferes with the satisfaction of our inclinations leads us to wonder whether we really ought to do what we usually call our duty, so the recognition that we and others are liable to mistakes in knowledge generally leads us, as it did Descartes, to wonder whether hitherto we may not have been always mistaken. And just as we try to find a proof, based on the general consideration of action and of human life, that we ought to act in the ways usually called moral, so we, like Descartes, propose by a process of reflection on our thinking to find a test of knowledge, i.e. a principle by applying which we can show that a certain condition of mind was really knowledge, a condition which ex hypothesi existed independently of the process of reflection. (1)
The question, then, is whether or not modern moral philosophy has succeeded in identifying such a procedure. Prichard says that there have been two broad strategies that correspond roughly to the consequentialist and the deontological approaches to morality (though the latter can be articulated in non-deontological ways as well): (a) to demonstrate that something is a duty from the fact that it produces some good; (b) to demonstrate that something is a duty, because it is the product of motives that are good. Both strategies, in his view, fail, but the consequentialist’s failure is the easiest to see, so let’s examine it first.
Does the fact that some state of affairs is good demonstrate that I am obligated to bring it about? It would seem obviously not, for the following is not a valid inference:
- x is G (good)
- Therefore, x is O (obligatory)
In order for 1. to justify 2., one would have to presuppose that what is good is obligatory. With that added as a premise, the inference is valid, after all.
- What is G is O
- x is G
- Therefore, x is O
The trouble, of course, is that I’ve grounded an obligation in what is good, only by invoking another obligation, for which I have no ground, which means that the consequentialist effort to ground obligation ultimately fails. (2)
The deontological strategy is just as problematic, though its faults are more difficult to articulate, in part because the circle is tighter and in part because for Kant it is really willing that falls under the concept of obligation, rather than acts. (Kant maintains that one can do what duty requires, but if one does it for the wrong kind of reason, the action does not “count,” morally speaking.)
What makes an action moral for Kant is that it is willed because it obligatory – this is just his idea of acting from duty. And the idea is supposed to be that willing for this reason is inherently good and that this is what explains the obligatoriness of certain acts of will. But one should see that this is just as circular as the consequentialist’s account. One appeals to the goodness of a certain kind of motivation in order to explain why certain acts of will are obligatory, but what makes those motives good is that they are motives from obligation. Once again, then, rather than explaining what is obligatory in terms of what is good, all that one has done is explain what is obligatory in terms of … what is obligatory. (3)
Prichard maintains that our feelings of obligation are basic and immediate – prima facie, to borrow an expression from fellow “Intuitionist” W.D. Ross – and for anyone who has ever felt morally obligated, this seems pretty hard to deny. But it is important to understand what he is not saying. Prichard is not suggesting that nothing can get us to feel an obligation – for example, seeing something or hearing something or learning about something. What he is denying is that any description of such facts, no matter how complete, entails or otherwise implies any particular obligation. In this sense, our feelings of obligation are like our experience of aesthetic properties. It may be that getting you to attend to the pale colors, curved contours, and long, thin neck of a vase may help you to see that it is delicate, but it does not follow from the fact that something is pale colored, has curved contours, and is possessed of a long, thin neck that it is delicate. (4)
What is even more interesting, however, is what Prichard says this all means with regard to our uncertainties. How do we know whether we really are obligated? How do we render those pre-theoretical, intuitive moral reactions reflectively and thus, rationally, respectable? The short answer is that we don’t and we can’t, but the details are fascinating and spread well beyond our feelings of moral obligation and into the realm of belief and of epistemology, proper.
Prichard observes that there has always been something quite odd about the modern epistemological enterprise, and it is something that Descartes arguably saw himself: namely, that it is folly to search for procedures that will guarantee or even substantially increase certainty. Suppose that I am taking a math test, and I believe that the answer to ‘3+5’ is ‘8’. Surely, I can doubt this, because I have made arithmetic errors in the past and more fundamentally, because I know that I can reason incorrectly.
But wouldn’t it be awfully strange to reach for a proof procedure, by which to insure that my arithmetic is correct on any given occasion; say, something like the procedure offered in Russell and Whiteheads’ Principia Mathematica? For if recognizing that I can and sometimes do reason incorrectly is what led me to doubt whether 3+5=8, wouldn’t it also cause me to doubt whatever result I came to, from working through R & W’s proof? More so, in fact, given how much more complex the proof is than the initial sum? And isn’t it obvious that this will be true of any proof or procedure I might come up with to “check” any belief, whether it’s that 3+5=8 or that I am currently sitting here typing this essay?
So, what do we actually do, if we doubt whether we have added a series of numbers correctly? We do the sum again. And what do we do, if we are not sure whether we really saw something? We look again. And what do we do, Prichard asks, if we doubt whether we really are obligated to do something? We put ourselves back in the situation – either really, or mentally – and see if we feel the obligation again. That’s all that we can do. And the level of confidence that arises as a result is all that we legitimately ever will have. (5)
- Prichard, p. 2.
- Ibid., p. 4.
- Ibid., p. 6.
- This is the central point of Frank Sibley’s famous essay, “Aesthetic Concepts” (1959). I offered my thoughts on it here:
5. Ibid., pp. 15=17.