Contemporary Ethical Theory Philosophers

Contemporary ethical theory begins with G. E. Moore (1873–1958). Moore opened up new issues for consideration and altered the focus of ethical discussion. Moore believed that the task of the ethical philosopher is to conduct a “general inquiry into what is good.

”This seems reasonably straightforward, down to earth, and useful. If you know what good or goodness is, and if you know what things are good, then you also know what proper conduct is, right? This, at any rate, is what Moore maintained, because he believed that the morally right act is the one that produces the greatest amount of goodIn an influential book, The Right and the Good (1930), W. D. Ross (1877–1970) defined his purpose as “to examine the nature, relations, and implications of three conceptions which appear to be fundamental in ethics—those of ‘right,’ ‘good’ in general, and ‘morally good.

’” Moore, as we noted, believed that that which alone makes right actions right is that they produce more good than alternative actions do. This seems reasonable enough, does it not? If a course of action is right, it must be because it is more productive of good than are alternative courses of action.But Ross disagreed. Certainly, he wrote, it is right and morally obligatory and our duty (these expressions all mean the same, for Ross) to bring into existence as many good things as possible. But the production of maximum good is not the only thing that makes an act right: we have other duties than to bring about good results. For example, it is your duty to keep promises, Ross said. What makes it right for you to do what you have promised to do is not that your doing it will produce more good, as Moore thought, but simply the fact that you promised to do it.Ross’s views are similar in this regard to those of Kant.

Kant, too, proposed a duty-based moral philosophy and was committed to the idea that our moral duty is self-evident. A duty-based moral philosophy is known as a deontological moral philosophy. Deontological ethics are usually contrasted with consequentialist The utilitarians defined the rightness of an action in terms of the happiness it produces as a consequence. Accordingly, moral judgments in effect are a type of factual judgment, a judgment about how much happiness some action produces.

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Moore and Ross denied that the rightness of an act or the goodness of an end can be defined in terms of happiness or any other natural property or thing. (They disagreed with each other about the relationship between rightness and goodness. ) But like the utilitarians, they believed that moral judgments are a type of factual judgment.

thics and virtue ethics, as explained in Chapter 10The contemporary British linguistic philosopher R. M. Hare (1919–2002) said that the function of moral discourse is not to express or influence attitudes but rather to guide conduct.

A moral judgment, according to Hare, is a kind of prescriptive judgment that is “universalizable”: when I make a moral judgment such as “You ought to give Smith back the book you borrowed,” I am prescribing a course of conduct, and my prescription is general and exceptionless (i. e. , I believe that anyone else in the same or relevantly similar situation ought to conduct himself or herself similarly). That emotivism misrepresents, or indeed trivializes, moral discourse is now fairly widely accepted by contemporary philosophers.

Despite their differences, Moore, Ross, and the emotivists all agreed that descriptive statements and value judgments are logically distinct. If you say that (1) I did not do what I promised you I would do, you are making a purely descriptive statement. If you say that (2) I did not do what I ought to have done, you are making a value judgment. Most of the philosophers of the first half of the twentieth century accepted Hume’s opinion that “you cannot deduce an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’” and held that it is a mistake to think that any moral value judgment is logically entailed by any descriptive statement.

This mistake was called the naturalist fallacy. Thus, for example, it would be committing the naturalist fallacy to suppose that (2) is logically deducible from (1). But is the naturalist fallacy really a fallacy? The issue is important because, if you hold Nevertheless, several issues in metaethics are currently in controversy. Included are these: • What makes a principle a moral principle? Can moral principles be about just anything? Or do they have some essential type of content? A morally obligatory act is one you ought to do, other things being equal.

A supererogatory act is one that is morally commendable but beyond the call of duty. Is this a legitimate distinction? Can traditional philosophical theories of ethics accommodate this distinction, if it is legitimate? • Is ethical truth relative to the ethical beliefs of a society or culture? That is, is ethical relativism true? • How should one understand the question,Why should I be moral? Is it a legitimate question? Is there a necessary connection between believing that something is morally obligatory and being motivated to choose to do it? (So-called internalists assert that there is such a connection; externalists deny that there is. ) • What gives a being moral standing? • Do some beings have a higher moral standing than others? • How are moral judgments about institutions and other collectives to be understood? Groups are sometimes said to be morally responsible for their actions. Is this responsibility something over and above the responsibility of the individuals in the group? Is there a moral difference between doing something that you know will have certain undesirable consequences and doing it with the intention of producing those consequences? On the other hand, a good example of a contemporary essay in moral philosophy that is not a piece of metaethics is included among the readings at the end of the chapter, the piece by James Rachels (1941–2003). In the article, Rachels discusses whether it is true that letting people die of starvation is as bad as killing them (the idea that the two are equally bad is known as the Equivalence Thesis).Although Rachels does not try to prove that the two are equally bad, he does try to show that letting people die is considerably worse than we usually think it is. Perhaps the single most influential publication in moral philosophy in the twentieth century was A Theory of Justice (1971), by Harvard professor John Rawls (1921–2002). The work heralded a renewed concern in philosophy with justice; further, virtually every philosophical writer on justice subsequent to the publication of this work identified his or her position with reference to it.

One recent commentator, Professor Charles Larmore of the University of Chicago, believes that Rawls is one of the three most important philosophers of the twentieth century, the other two being Wittgenstein (Chapter 9) and Heidegger (Chapter 8). Rawls writes from within the liberal tradition, but he had grown dissatisfied with the utilitarianism on which liberalism was often based. He was also dissatisfied with attempts merely to circumscribe utilitarianism with ad hoc “self-evident” principles about our duties (see the section on W. D.Ross earlier in this chapter). Rawls said that in writing A Theory of Justice he wanted to “carry to a higher order of abstraction the traditional doctrine of the social contract.

” The result was a lengthy and systematic attempt to establish, interpret, and illuminate the fundamental principles of justice; to apply them to various central issues in social ethics; to use them for appraising social, political, and economic institutions; and to examine their implications for duty and obligation. We focus our discussion on the principles themselves.The Fundamental Requirements of the Just Society According to Rawls, because society is typically characterized by a conflict as well as an identity of interests, it must have a set of principles for assigning basic rights and duties and for determining the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. These are the principles of distributive or social justice. They specify the kinds of social cooperation that can be entered into and the forms of government that can be established.

It is here that Rawls’s theory of justice intersects with traditional philosophical questions about the ethically legitimate functions and organization of the state. ) For Rawls, a society (or a state) is not well ordered unless (1) its members know and accept the same principles of social justice and (2) the basic social institutions generally satisfy and are generally known to satisfy these principles. If a society is to be well ordered, its members must determine by rational reflection what are to be their principles of justice, says Rawls.If the principles selected are to be reasonable and justifiable, they must be selected through a procedure that is fair. (Rawls’s book is an elaboration on a 1958 paper he wrote titled “Justice As Fairness. ”) It also follows from the priority of the first principle over the second that, contrary to what utilitarian theory seems to require, someone’s personal liberty cannot be sacrificed for the sake of the common good. Does the pleasure of owning slaves bring more happiness to the slave owners than it brings unhappiness to the slaves?If so, then the total happiness of society may be greater with slavery than without it. Thus, slavery would be to the common good, and utilitarianism would require that it should be instituted.

Of course, utilitarians may maintain that slavery or other restrictions of liberties will as a matter of fact diminish the sum total of happiness in a society and for this reason cannot be condoned, but they must nevertheless admit that, as a matter of principle, violations of liberty would be justified for the sake of the happiness of the many.According to Rawls’s principles, such violations for the sake of the general happiness are not justified. The Rights of Individuals Although Rawls does not explicitly discuss the “rights” of individuals as a major topic, his theory obviously can be interpreted as securing such rights (see, for example, Rex Martin’s 1985 book, Rawls and Rights). Many have believed that, without God, talk of rights is pretty much nonsense; Rawls does not discuss God, and it seems plain that he does not need to do so to speak meaningfully of a person’s rights.According to Rawls, a just society guarantees persons the right to pursue their own ends so long as they do not interfere with the right of others to pursue their own ends.

It is not acceptable to restrict this “right” for some supposed higher good. In a later work, Political Liberalism (1993), Rawls considers more carefully how his conception of justice as fairness can be endorsed by the diverse array of incompatible religious and philosophical doctrines that exist over time in a modern democratic society like ours.To answer this question, he finds that he must characterize justice more narrowly than he did earlier, as a freestanding political conception rather than as a comprehensive value system (like Christianity) that governs all aspects of one’s life, both public and private. Political justice becomes the focus of an overlapping consensus of comprehensive value systems and thus can still be embraced by all in a pluralistic democratic society. This change in Rawls’s theory marks a change in Rawls’s own theoretical understanding of justice as fairness.

As a practical matter, though, the two principles of justice mentioned earlier still constitute the best conception of political cooperation required for stability in a democratic regime, in Rawls’s view “the state of nature”—“advances the good of those taking part of it” (to quote Rawls). But does it? If, as Nozick believes, “individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights),” then it may well be true, as anarchists believe, that “any state necessarily violates people’s moral rights and hence is intrinsically immoral. In the first part of his book, Nozick considers carefully whether this anarchist belief is true. His conclusion is that it is not. To establish this conclusion, he attempts to show that a minimal state can arise by the mechanism of an “invisible hand” (see box) from a hypothetical state of nature without violating any natural rights. As intuitively plausible as Nozick’s conclusion is on its face, his defense of it is controversial, and the issue turns out to be difficult.

Nozick’s own concept of justice rests on an idea that comes naturally to many people (at least until they imagine themselves in Rawls’s “initial situation” behind a “veil of ignorance” about their own assets and abilities). The idea is that what is yours is yours: redistributing your income or goods against your wishes for the sake of the general happiness or to achieve any other objective is unjust. Nozick defends this idea. A person is entitled to what he or she has rightfully acquired, and justice consists in each person’s retaining control over his or her rightful acquisitions.This is Nozick’s entitlement concept of social justice.

Nozick does not clarify or attempt to defend his entitlement concept of social justice to the extent some critics would like (he basically accepts a refined version of Locke’s theory of property acquisition, according to which, you will remember, what is yours is what you mix your labor with). Instead, he mainly seeks to show that alternative conceptions of social justice, conceptions that ignore what a person is entitled to by virtue of rightful acquisition, are defective.According to Nozick, social justice, that is, justice in the distribution of goods, is not achieved by redistributing these goods to achieve some objective but rather by permitting them to remain in the hands of those who have legitimately acquired them: Your being forced to contribute to another’s welfare violates your rights, whereas someone else’s not providing you with things you need greatly, including things essential to the protection of your rights, does not itself violate your rights, even though it avoids making it more difficult for someone else to violate them.According to Nozick’s view of social justice, taking from the rich without compensation and giving to the poor is never just (assuming the rich did not become rich through force or fraud, etc. ).

This would also be Locke’s view. According to the strict utilitarian view, by contrast, doing so is just if it is to the greater good of the aggregate of people (as would be the case, for example, if through progressive taxation you removed from a rich person’s income an amount that he or she would miss but little and used it to prevent ten people from starving).Finally, according to Rawls’s view of justice, taking from the rich and giving to the poor is just if it is to the greater good of the aggregate, provided it does not compromise anyone’s liberty (which, in the case just envisioned, it arguably would not). The Rights of Individuals In the opening sentence of his book, Nozick asserts that individuals have rights, and indeed his entire argument rests on that supposition, especially those many aspects that pertain to property rights.Unfortunately, Nozick’s theoretical justification of the supposition is very obscure: it has something to do, evidently, with a presumed inviolability of individuals that prohibits their being used as means to ends and perhaps also with the necessary conditions for allowing them to give meaning to their lives. If Nozick has not made his thought entirely clear in this area, he has set forth very plainly the implications for social theory, as he sees them, of assuming that natural rights exist.

In addition, his work contains many interesting and provocative side discussions, including critical discussions of Marx’s theory of exploitation According to Rawls, in a just society individuals are guaranteed the right to pursue their own ends to the extent that they do not interfere with the right of others to pursue their own ends. Compromising this basic right to individual liberty for the sake of any so-called higher good is not acceptable in the Rawlsian view, and any such “good” is not really a good thing at all. You could say that, for Rawls, the right to personal liberty is more basic or fundamental than goodness.This is a view widely held by liberals. However, some recent critics of Rawls say there exists a common good whose attainment has priority over individual liberty. Some of these critics are known as communitarians, for they hold that this common good is defined by one’s society or “community. ” Important communitarian critics of Rawls include Michael Sandel (Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, 1982), Michael Walzer (Spheres of Justice, 1983, and Thick and Thin, 1994), and Alasdair MacIntyre (most widely known work: After Virtue, 1984).

Sandel believes that the community is an intersubjective or collective self because self-understanding comprehends more than just an individual human being: it comprehends one’s family or tribe or class or nation or people—in short, one’s community, with its shared ends and common vocabulary and mutual understandings. The Rawlsian principle of equal liberty is subordinate to the good of this social organism, for Sandel. Walzer (also famous for his theorizing on just and unjust wars—see the box “War! ”) contrasts “thick” or particularist moral argument, which is internal o and framed within a specific political association or “culture,” with “thin” moral argument, which is abstract and general and philosophical. Political philosophers, according to Walzer, seek an abstract, universal (thin) point of view and are concerned with the appropriate structure of political association in general.

But any full account of how social goods ought to be distributed, he says, will be thick; it “will be idiomatic in its language, particularist in its cultural reference, and historically detailed. ” For Walzer, a society is just if its way of life is faithful to the shared understanding of its members.There “are no eternal or universal principles” that can replace a “local account” of justice.

All such principles are abstractions and simplifications that nevertheless still reflect particular cultural viewpoints Alasdair MacIntyre and Virtue Ethics Alasdair MacIntyre’s (1929– ) famous book AfterVirtue (2nd ed. , 1984) was the major impetus behind a recent surge in interest by philosophers in virtue ethics. Prior to MacIntyre, the theories most influential in contemporary moral philosophy were those from the utilitarians and from Kant.Moral philosophy (excluding metaethics) usually took the form of rules or principles of conduct: act so as to promote the most happiness possible; social and economic inequalities should be arranged so that they are to everyone’s advantage; and so forth. But after MacIntyre, there’s been much interest in the virtues, those beneficial traits of character— courage, compassion, generosity, truthfulness, justness, and the like—that enable individuals to flourish as human beings.

The idea is that traits of character are in many ways morally more fundamental than rules for action.A cowardly act, for example, seems less commendable than a courageous one, even if the cowardly act happens to have better consequences. Whether acts count as moral or immoral seems to depend less on their consequences or on the intent of the person acting and more on the type of character they reflect. Other philosophers in the virtue ethics tradition include Plato,Aristotle, Aquinas, Nietzsche, and (in certain respects) Hume. In After Virtue, MacIntyre wrote that “there is no way to possess the virtues except as part of a tradition in which we inherit them and our understanding of them from a series of predecessors. The first in this series of predecessors, according to MacIntyre, were the “heroic societies” typified in Homer’s Iliad.

Here, “every individual has a given role and status within a well-defined and highly determinate system of roles and statuses. ” Consequently, moral duties are known and understood, and affairs lack ethical ambiguity. MacIntyre went on to trace the evolution of ethical thought through the Sophists, Plato,Aristotle, the Stoics, the Middle Ages, and the Enlightenment, right up to Nietzsche. For MacIntyre, it is from Aristotle and the Aristotelian tradition that we have the most to learn.Among other lessons, MacIntyre accepted Aristotle’s view that human nature cannot be specified merely by stating the average human’s characteristics; instead, we must conceive of human nature in terms of its potentialities. Virtues, from this perspective, are traits that promote human flourishing and thus naturally produce pleasure.

For MacIntyre, Nietzsche represents the ultimate alternative to Aristotle. For with Nietzsche, the person must “raze to the ground the structures of inherited moral belief and argument. ” Nietzsche or Aristotle?For MacIntyre the choice is clear. In addition to these themes, MacIntyre emphasized the “concept of a self whose unity resides in the unity of a narrative which links birth to life to death as narrative beginning to middle to end.

” That is, according to MacIntyre, the only way to make sense of decisions and actions is in their context in the person’s story in which they happen. An action viewed in and of itself, independent of its place in the story that is this person’s life, is unintelligible. This does not mean that your life can follow just any old story line.Your life story must be the search for attainment of your potential as human; that is, it must be the search for your excellence or good. The virtues, MacIntyre wrote, sustain us in a relevant kind of quest for the good. However, each person’s own quest for her or his own good or excellence must be undertaken from within that person’s moral tradition.

“The notion of escaping . . .

into a realm of entirely universal maxims which belong to man as such, whether in its eighteenth-century Kantian form or in the presentation of some modern analytical moral philosophies, is an illusion. ” How do we find the good?MacIntyre distinguishes between the excellences or goods that are internal to a practice and those that are external to it. For example, a good internal to the practice of medicine is patients’ health; an external good is wealth. To attain a good internal to a practice, you must operate within a certain social context, abiding by the rules of the practice, which have arisen through the history of the practice. A virtue, for MacIntyre, may be analyzed as a quality required to attain a good internal to a practice.

Unless some of the practitioners are virtuous, the practice will decay.Entire moral traditions are also subject to degeneration unless they have their virtuous practitioners. Further, to understand the human good, we can begin with the goods internal to human practices, noting how they are ordered in comparison with each other. For example, the good internal to one practice, medicine, let’s say, stands at a higher level than the good internal to another practice, playing football, perhaps. As we try to rank goods and to order our own affairs accordingly, we come to have a clearer understanding of the human good and ourselves.

Putting this complex understanding of virtue together MacIntyre concluded: The virtues find their point and purpose not only in sustaining the relationships necessary if the goods internal to practices are to be achieved and not only in sustaining the form of an individual life in which that individual may seek out his or her good as the good of his or her whole life, but also in sustaining those traditions which provide both. The thought of Karl Marx has been interpreted, expanded, and amended by his many followers, conspicuously so, of course, by the Communist Party.Today, Marxism, like Christianity (as philosopher and social historian Sidney Hook said), is a family of doctrines continually being renewed and revised. It is more appropriate to treat the details of the further evolution of Marxist in a text on political history than in this summary overview of political philosophy. Still, because Marxism has been very important in contemporary political philosophy, we shall describe briefly the views of a contemporary Marxist.

In the late 1960s, the most famous philosopher in the United States was Herbert Marcuse [mar-KOO-zeh] (1898–1979).This was the era of tumultuous social and political unrest, the era of the New Left, Vietnam War protest, “people power,” militant black and feminist disaffection, hippies, acid, four-letter words, and Woodstock. Marcuse was in. (See the box “Marcuse in Southern California” on page 407. ) Marcuse’s reputation on the street arose from his book One-Dimensional Man (1964), a Marxist-oriented appraisal of contemporary industrial society. For the New Left, the book was a clear statement of deficiencies in American society.As we have seen, it is a Marxist doctrine (or, at any rate, a doctrine of orthodox Marxists) that a disenfranchised working class is the inevitable instrument of social change. But according to Marcuse, the working class has been integrated into advanced capitalist society.

Indeed, it has been integrated so well that it “can actually be characterized as a pillar of the establishment,” he said. This integration has been effected, he believed, through the overwhelming efficiency of technology in improving the standard of living.Because today’s workers share so largely in the comforts of consumer society, they are far less critical of the status quo than if they had been indoctrinated through propaganda or even brainwashed. Ayn Rand (1905–1982), born Alissa Rosenbaum, graduated from the University of Petrograd (Leningrad) in 1924, moved to the United States the following year, and eventually became a Hollywood screenwriter. She achieved renown with the publication of two novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957).

Rand founded a philosophical movement called objectivism, which was based on her interpretation of Aristotle. She saw Aristotle as a realist who established ethics on an objective understanding of human behavior rooted in knowable principles. Unlike Aristotle, however, she thought that certainty in morality was possible. Rand’s philosophy has not attracted quite as much interest among academic philosophers as have some of the others we have mentioned in this chapter, but it has been a source of widespread popular discussion.Rand’s early writings were based on her understanding of Nietzsche, and she followed his contempt for the ignorance of most humans.

She has Kira, her protagonist in We the Living (1936), say: “What are your masses but millions of dull, shriveled, helpless souls that have no thoughts of their own, no dreams of their own, no will of their own, who eat and sleep and chew helplessly the words that others put into their brains? . . . I loathe most of them. ” Nietzsche scorned having pity on such herd animals, and Rand thought there was no worse injustice than giving to the undeserving.She thought of pity as a dangerous weakness that, historically, has allowed the weak, the ignorant, and the undeserving to become parasites on the strong and the productive. She spoke of the “sanction of the victim,” the unwitting assent of the man of ability (the victim) to concede the false premise that his inferiors have the moral right to the product of his labor. In truth, she thought, progress is to be made only by the brilliant few who affirm life and pleasure, who think for themselves, and who are the creative artists of life.

These are the heroic, larger-than-life figures who change the world for the better. To help you review, here is a checklist of the key philosophers and terms and concepts of this chapter. The brief descriptive sentences summarize the philosophers’ leading ideas. Keep in mind that some of these summary statements are oversimplifications of complex positions. Philosophers • Alasdair MacIntyre was a leading twentiethcentury exponent of virtue ethics. 402 Herbert Marcuse, a Marxist, held that the working class has been transformed from a force for radical change into a force for preserving the status quo because of the false needs created by consumerism and advertising. 405 • G.

E. Moore was the most important early figure in contemporary analytic ethics and metaethics. He held that goodness is an undefinable, noncomplex, and nonnatural property of good things. He said that what makes right actions right is that they produce more goodness than alternative actions. 384 Robert Nozick, an analytic (libertarian) political philosopher, held that a limited “nightwatchman” state is ethically justified but that any more extensive state violates people’s rights. 396 • Martha Nussbaum, contemporary moral philosopher known also for social commentary. Known especially for work in virtue ethics and Greek philosophy, the role of emotions in decision making, and issues in international social justice. 403 • Ayn Rand was the founder of “objectivism,”a philosophy that championed the brilliant individual who rises to the top in an ideal society based on the freedom of the individual to create.

08 • John Rawls, an analytic (liberal) political philosopher, attempted to establish the fundamental principles of distributive justice through consideration of a hypothetical “original position” in which people’s choice of principles is not biased by their individual unique circumstances. He held that all social goods are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution is to everyone’s advantage. 392 • W. D. Ross held that the production of maximum good is not the only thing that makes an act right; some things are just simply our moral duty to do.

387 Key Terms and Concepts onfrontation with that theory. antinaturalism 387 applied ethics 390 capabilities approach 404 capitalism 410 Communist 410 communism 410 communitarians 400 conservatism 410 democratic socialism 410 deontological ethics 388 emotivism 389 entitlement concept of social justice 398 Equivalence Thesis 391 fascism 410 invisible-hand mechanism 397 liberalism 409 metaethics 387 moral judgment 386 naturalist fallacy 389 night-watchman state 397 normative ethics 386 original position 393 prescriptive judgment 389 prima facie duties 388 socialism 410 veil of ignorance 393 virtue ethics 402


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