Ethics And Values Research Paper

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In the twentieth century, moral philosophy and the theory of value came to be explicitly subdivided into two elements: metatheory, which concerns questions about meaning and justification; and normative theory, which concerns more substantive questions about what is good, right, or valuable. In earlier centuries, these two kinds of question were seldom distinguished. More recently, dissatisfaction with any sharp separation of these areas of inquiry has grown: how are we to judge the adequacy of any account of meaning without asking whether it does some justice to widespread substantive convictions? The distinction nonetheless will make the presentation below more manageable. Its focus will almost exclusively be on so-called ‘analytic,’ Anglo-American philosophy and its claimed antecedents, although fundamental work on ethics and the theory of value has of course been done in other traditions.

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1. Ethics

1.1 Metaethics

There is no agreed-upon distinction between, say, ethics and morality, and the terms are used more or less interchangeably (though Williams 1985 associates ‘morality’ especially with duty-based systems). Both terms show in their origin a relation to social customs—ethos and mores—and both have a descriptive as well as a normative sense. In the former sense, we can ask ‘What was the Greek warrior’s ethic?’ or ‘How has morality evolved in Western Europe over last two hundred years?’ In the latter sense, we can ask ‘What is the ethical thing to do when one accidentally learns of a deep confidence?’ or ‘Is it moral for us to carry out animal experimentation?’

The descriptive sense seems fairly straightforward, at least once one has noticed that there are wider and narrower uses (see Gibbard 1990). On the wide use, a morality is virtually any code of conduct involving attitudes of approval and disapproval, regardless of its particular content or social standing: a warrior ethic might favor unstinting cruelty toward one’s enemies; a personal morality might glorify selfishness or esthetic accomplishment over all else, even if society finds this abhorrent. On the narrow use, morality is taken to involve norms of conduct with a distinctive purport, sometimes characterized in terms of a moral point of view, as contrasted with, say, an esthetic or prudential point of view (see Baier 1958). Morality, narrowlyunderstood, is said to involve some or all of: impartiality, concern for the well-being of others, treating like cases alike, willingness to cooperate, a notion of personal agency and responsibility, associated feelings of impersonal anger, guilt, or deservingness. In the broad sense, we can ask of virtually anyone or any society, ‘What is his (or their) morality?’; in the narrow sense, we can ask, ‘Does this individual (or this society) have a morality, and, if so, when did it emerge?’ Much of the interest of philosophers and social scientists in individual moral development or in the historical development of morality concerns morality in the narrow sense. For example, there is an active debate over whether various ancient civilizations recognized morality, as distinct from enlightened prudence or religious requirement (see Annas 1993).

An important moment came when Prichard (1912) convinced virtually everyone that showing certain principles of conduct to be advantageous would not suffice to show they had distinctively moral standing. Recent interest in the possible evolutionary origins of morality also typically concerns morality in the narrow sense: ‘debunking’ views tend to emphasize that the gene- and kin-oriented mechanisms of natural selection are not impartial; ‘vindicating’ views tend to emphasize that these mechanisms could have equipped us with psychological resources—empathy, cooperativeness, concern for fairness—that can be mobilized culturally on behalf of genuinely moral practices (for examples, see Thompson 1995).

Philosophical analysis of moral language in the normative sense also has focused on the narrow use of the term, though this has not eliminated controversy. Central to the disputes has been the question whether moral claims are capable of truth or falsity, the question of ‘cognitivism.’ Noncognitivists have maintained that the primary semantic function of moral claims is not to state facts, but to express attitudes or commands intended to influence behavior, and so they are incapable of being strictly true or false.‘Noncognitivism’ is in some ways an unfortunate term, since moral discourse clearly involves a great deal of cognition and conceptual content, even according to those who claim its primary function is to express attitudes (see Stevenson 1944, Hare 1952, Gibbard 1990, Blackburn 1984). For an attitude to count as distinctively moral, it must represent itself as responsive to certain features rather than others (those characterized by a moral point of view), and as regulative for certain emotions (e.g., impersonalanger). Recently so-called ‘minimalist’ theories of truth have gained currency, according to which the labels ‘true’ or ‘false’ can appropriately be applied to sentences of a discourse so long as they enter seamlessly into familiar logical relations, patterns of inference, etc. (Horwich 1990). Since moral statements unquestionably do this—‘Stealing is wrong’ can be the premise of a normal logical inference, but a command like ‘Don’t you dare steal!’ cannot—there has been a tendency to concede on all sides of the debate that moral statements can be said to be ‘truth-apt’ or ‘propositional’ in the minimal sense. This might or might not suffice to earn the label ‘realism’ about moral properties (see Blackburn 1993).

The burning issue has become: even if propositional, do moral statements have an ‘internal’ or conceptual connection with motivation, such that making a moral judgment involves an element of endorsement not found in ordinary factual judgments? One can perfectly appropriately assert, for example, ‘This rock is granite’ without expressing any favorable or unfavorable attitude toward that state of affairs. If one cannot similarly assert ‘This situation is immoral’ with perfect sincerity and linguistic propriety while having no attitude of disapproval, then there remains a fundamental semantic difference between moral and ‘merely descriptive’ discourse.

Defenders of ‘propositionalism’ face a choice: either insist that this expressive function belongs to the pragmatics of moral discourse rather than its semantics, or devise an account of the propositional meaning of moral statements that incorporates motivation ‘internally.’

Subjectivists pursue the latter path. A simple subjectivism holds that moral statements are tantamount to claims about what one, or one’s society, approves or disapproves. This view results in a kind of moral relativism: which moral judgments may be applied to an individual or a society depends upon which norms or principles he, she, or they accept. Relativist views have enjoyed a certain popularity, since they seem laudably cosmopolitan, although they typically account poorly for moral disagreement (except as a factual debate over which norms are accepted) and often verge on incoherence, since they may include a nonrelativistic moral recommendation of tolerance in response to moral difference (but see Harman and Thomson 1996 for a sophisticated debate on relativism). Contemporary subjectivists therefore take a more objectivist approach, inspired in part by an analogy between moral qualities and secondary qualities, such as color (McDowell 1985). Color judgments show a high degree of objectivity and intersubjective agreement, so much so that they are often used in scientific observation and social coordination (e.g., ‘red’ for ‘stop’). Yet colors are nonetheless based in part on a subjective response, and those without a certain human-typical perceptual apparatus are incapable of seeing color. Moral judgments might be similar. Those without a certain human-typical motivational apparatus might be incapable of moral experience, but since virtually all of us have (or could develop) these motivations, moral judgments can also be highly objective and intersubjective. So we might think of moral properties neither as independent features of the world, nor as mere projected feelings on our part, but as a pairing of features of situations and characteristic (or ideal-typical) human responses to those features—rather in the way dangerousness might be seen as a pairing or risk and fear—and therefore as response-dependent.

In the moral case, the response—like fear—would have a motivational aspect, perhaps arising from moral training in the virtues rather than sheer human physiology. For someone equipped with moral character, then, moral experience and judgment are necessarily accompanied by a motivating response. Does this sort of subjectivism lead to relativism—different patterns of moral training (say) yield different, yet locally apt, moral judgments? Not quite, since we can take our moral discourse, like our actual color discourse, to be anchored to our actual responses (by a semantic device known as ‘rigidification’; see Wiggins 1998). The difficulty now is that those in different moral traditions may simply turn out not to have a common moral vocabulary with us.

Nonsubjectivists typically reject the semantic or ‘internal’ tie to motivation, and claim that moral judgments can be made without linguistic impropriety even by someone for whom they are normally motivationally inert. Such ‘externalist’ approaches recognize that in our ordinary life we presuppose certain typical motivations—so that it will be somewhat misleading to utter ‘This situation is immoral’ if one does not intend thereby to indicate or express any negative attitude toward it. But similarly, if, in normal circumstances, one utters ‘I believe that she’s coming at noon,’ one’s listeners can suppose that one thereby endorses their believing likewise, though one does not contradict oneself in saying, ‘I believe that she’s coming at noon, but don’t take my word for it.’ Expressions of belief, and of moral evaluation, play certain roles in our social lives owing to various prevailing or presupposed background conditions, but these do not all become part of the very meaning of these words—or perhaps, the distinction between what ‘belongs to meaning’ and what ‘belongs to pragmatics’ is so soft that we should not allow ourselves to be driven to surprising conclusions like relativism or rigidification by the so-called ‘motivation problem.’ Externalists are divided into naturalists, who think the properties attributed in moral discourse are within the ambit of ordinary empirical knowledge, and non-naturalists, who think of moral properties as in some sense sui generis.

The first need to explain how morality can be so controversial, if moral questions are in principle resolvable by matters of natural fact; the second need to explain how moral properties can be known or referred to, if they are not causally related to our experience. Some naturalists outright identify moral concepts with certain natural concepts; others give a broadly functional characterization of the role or meaning or moral terms—the truisms about morality and its social role—and leave conceptually ‘open’ the question which particular acts, practices, etc. play the relevant role (for some varieties, see Brandt 1979, Railton 1986, Boyd 1987, Brink 1989, Lewis 1989, Jackson and Pettit 1996). Of course, one possibility is that nothing can be found that will play all or most of the role ascribed to moral properties, resulting in an error theory of moral discourse rather like atheism about religion (Mackie 1977). Non-naturalists argue that morality is not alone in showing the need to give an account of how we are able to talk about or have knowledge of ‘nonempirical’ phenomena—mathematics poses similar problems (see Ross 1930, Wiggins 1988).

  1. E. Moore, a non-naturalist externalist, famously diagnosed a ‘naturalistic fallacy’ in moral philosophy, but the import of this claim has been widely misunderstood (Moore 1903). He did not doubt, and few in the twentieth century have doubted, that moral evaluation supervenes on nonmoral, natural properties—roughly, those properties accessible to empirical experience and investigation. It is, according to this view, a mistaken picture of value to think that two situations could be identical in all empirical features yet one correctly judged good and the other bad. In this sense, then, ‘naturalism’ is not at issue in these metaethical debates, and a kind of transition from ‘is’ to ‘ought’ is possible: we are able to learn whether acts are good or bad, once we have mastered moral concepts, by learning of their empirical features. Moore’s point is that moral concepts are conceptually distinct from the natural concepts or criteria we might use to apply them—we do not contradict ourselves by asking whether happiness is good in itself, even if, as a matter of fact, it is (Frankena 1939). This is perhaps to be contrasted with supernaturalist thinking about ethics, according to which some supernatural feature— such as autonomous approval by a deity—is necessary for moral standing. Most contemporary moral philosophy would not sustain the conclusion that ‘If God is dead, everything is permitted.’

Oscar Wilde has Mrs. Cheveley say, after being reprimanded by Gertrude Chiltern, ‘Do you know, Gertrude, I don’t mind your talking morality a bit. Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike’ (An Ideal Husband, Act II). Such a ‘debunking’ depends on a contrast between the normative purport of morality and the normative status it actually possesses or deserves. If ‘x is wrong’ simply meant ‘I personally don’t like x’, there would be no presumption that it would be bothersome to be told that what one is doing is wrong. Morality might simply dress up personal dislikes in judgmental clothing. But giving an account of the meaning of moral terms—a metatheory—involves saying just what this dressing-up consists of. (A collection of related essays and a more extensive survey is to be found in Darwall et al. 1996.)

1.2 Normative Ethics

It is difficult to imagine that moral properties have nothing to do with likes and dislikes, or broadly, with what matters to people or to sentient beings generally. Thus there does appear to be something profoundly subjective about it. Yet it strives to develop objective forms of evaluation on this subjective base. We can see normative moral theories as seeking to develop a synthesis of subjective and objective elements that: (a) presents a credible account of moral rightness and value, one which fits reasonably well with our firmest moral judgments on reflection; (b) is psychologically and socially realistic (‘ought implies can’; a condition that is growing in importance in philosophy as we learn more about cognitive and motivational psychology and social dynamics); (c) involves no suspect metaphysical or epistemological assumptions (see Parfit 1984, Sinnott-Armstrong and Timmons 1996); and (d) enables us to locate a compelling basis for moral evaluation that would explain how those judgments could credibly be justified, criticized, and improved—since we are all aware of moral judgments that seemed obviously right or self-evident (such as the permissibility of slavery or the moral irrelevance of animals), that we have subsequently come to reject. A normative moral theory should illuminate the deeper springs of moral concern (if such can be found), even if it calls for some normative rethinking on our part. This set of concerns is sometimes called seeking wide reflective equilibrium (Rawls 1971).

We find three major living traditions in normative moral theory, one claiming as its spiritual ancestor Aristotle, the second David Hume, and the third Immanuel Kant.

On Aristotelian accounts, the fundamental question of ethics is ‘What is the good life?,’ and the answer is thought to take the form: the virtuous life (for some Aristotelian approaches, see Aristotle 1989, McDowell 1985, Williams 1985, MacIntyre 1981). Virtues are robust traits of character, drawing on normal human faculties and motivations but shaped by proper moral training, that enable an individual to see what is best or required, and act appropriately, in a wide range of circumstances. Virtue thus involves cognitive, affective, and conative elements. Moreover, virtues are thought to be mutually-reinforcing (‘the unity of the virtues’), and to yield a life that is itself good for the virtuous person to lead. Typically, one cannot formulate strict principles of action that govern the virtuous agent: moral conduct essentially involves the exercise of judgment (shaped by the ‘moral experience’ of the virtuous agent), yet this need not preclude fairly objective recommendations about specific situations—much as we think that persons of sensitivity, discernment, and knowledge tend to converge in esthetic judgment even if esthetic evaluation cannot be captured in terms of strict rules. Although virtue theories take agents and their motives as the primary locus of moral evaluation, the view need not simply be individualistic. Aristotle, for example, thought the virtuous life to be possible only in the right sort of social and political setting, and only if one plays one’s appropriate role in that setting.

Humean accounts, though they may make room for virtue, typically do not assign it so fundamental a role. They seek to understand morality as a scheme of social cooperation and regulation that enables individuals and groups to achieve sought-after ends that they could not attain individually, or on the strength of native instinct. In Hume’s own view (see Hume 1888, a related view is found in Adam Smith 1976), we are natively equipped with many of the sentiments necessary for such cooperation and regulation—empathy (what Hume called ‘sympathy’), an intrinsic concern for kith and kin, a willingness to defer to custom, etc.—but others within this tradition (e.g., Bentham) suppose humans to be egoistic hedonists. Each strand solves the ‘motivational problem’ for morality in a distinctive way—Hume by the reshaping of native sentiment toward greater impartiality and willingness to cooperate through social conventions and ‘artificial’ in addition to ‘natural’ virtues, Bentham by the use of socially backed ‘sanctions’ for changing the incentives individuals face. Both of these strands recognize the need for a common, objective standard for moral assessment: ‘the general interest.’ An influential form of this general approach is utilitarianism, which has taken a vast number of particular forms. Essential to it are two features: (a) a notion of a person’s good or well-being that can be assessed prior to judging moral worthiness—a theory of intrinsic nonmoral value (which need not be hedonistic, but could be perfectionist or involve the satisfaction of informed desires, personal or impersonal); (b) a way of evaluating acts or practices across individual lives and over time by comparing tendencies to promote intrinsic nonmoral value, impartially assessed (which characteristically is thought of as maximizing, but need not be).

Such value-based theories, often called consequentialist or teleological (end-oriented), hold that the good is prior to the right. Morality partakes of the subjective because intrinsic goodness is grounded in what does, or could, matter to people (or to sentient beings generally) for its own sake. Yet morality is objective, because it seeks to ground distinctively moral judgments on an unbiased and impartial assessment of how that act or practice affects the long-term realization of intrinsic value in our lives.

On Kantian accounts, there is an attempt to locate a ground of rightness that is not in this way wholly dependent on such tendencies to promote nonmoral good. In some sense, the end does not entirely justify the means, and certain constraints on right action, or prerogatives for individual choice, exist that are not functions solely of actual or typical consequences. Indeed, there is on Kantian views some resistance to the idea that we can characterize ‘intrinsic nonmoral good’: happiness derived from using another in- appropriately as a means, e.g., torturing an innocent, is not, they claim, a good at all. Normative theories that thus claim that the right is prior to the good are sometimes called deontological (duty-based). Al-though Kant’s own view is a bit hard to categorize at its foundation, views of Kantian inspiration have become the dominant and best developed form of philosophical deontology. (Other forms include: Lockean natural rights theories, e.g., Nozick 1974, and rational intuitionism, e.g., Ross 1930. For a discussion, see Scheffler 1982.) Humean moral theorists are able to give a rationale for encouraging nonconsequentialist moral norms or motivations by a ‘second-order’ consequentialist argument: this is necessary to avoid individually or collectively self-defeating behavior (see Parfit 1984). But how are we to give a rational justification of moral actions and duties, or constraints and prerogatives, if we are willing to fly directly in the face of consequences for what we most value? The Kantian approaches this question from the standpoint of a responsible agent asking ‘What have I reason to do?’ From this stand-point, we recognize that desires and goals do not automatically give reasons to act, since they are themselves up for scrutiny—and not merely because some are stronger or more basic than others.

A desire for revenge, however powerful or however much a part of human nature, ought to be fought, rather weighed in an individual or social ‘utility function.’ We know from experience that we are free enough from the control even of ‘natural’ desires and interests to do this. If one claims that one’s act is rationally permitted, one in effect licenses the maxim on which it is based as legitimate for anyone in similar circumstances. Like ideal legislators, we thus authorize ourselves to act by ‘making law,’ aware of the condition that we ought to be—even when we would prefer otherwise—subject to the very same law (the imperative is categorical). This universalizability condition on our wills brings an element of objectivity and generality to our decisions, based not on actual or probable consequences, but on a notion of ourselves as autonomous (literally, ‘self-law-giving’), seeking the moral law (see Kant 1964). Some contemporary Kantians prefer to understand this in terms of a hypothetical social contract: we show that our action is permitted or required by rules that we would all agree to (or find reasonable) in a situation of initial freedom and equality. Some acts or practices that would have good consequences—promoting social peace by treating individuals paternalistically in a secretive way, or permitting inequalities that raise total utility but do not tend to benefit all members of society—might thereby be ruled out (Rawls 1971, Scanlon 1998; for a related view, expressed in terms of the conditions for nondistorted social communication, see Habermas 1990). Other contemporaries inspired by the notion of autonomy have seen in this doctrine a radical affirmation of individual human freedom. Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, gave a distinctively existentialist account of ‘choosing for all mankind,’ holding that we can lapse into bad faith if we attempt to escape this absolute responsibility for our acts by pointing to things ‘beyond our control,’ such as ‘regrettable circumstances,’ ‘natural urges,’ or even ‘moral principle’ itself (Sartre 1946).

One might see these three traditions as each emphasizing a different, yet important root of morality: the notion of the moral life as the best or fittest sort of life for humans (Aristotle); the notion of the moral life as one of benevolence and freedom from prejudice (Hume); and the notion of the moral life as one of respect for one’s own freedom and rationality as well as that of others (Kant). Can all these elements be combined into one normative theory? No overarching synthesis has been found, and any view that seeks to be at all systematic cannot, so to speak, guarantee that it is optimal in three dimensions at once. Kant, aware there could be no guarantee, nonetheless took it to be an essential condition of the rationality of moral conduct that autonomous self-legislation would in the end yield both good consequences overall and a good life for humans—happiness and virtue would be united as the ‘highest good,’ if not in this life, then in the afterlife—but later Kantians have largely given up this doctrine of ‘rational faith’ and argued that Kant’s account can stand even without postulating that these conditions are met.

An alternative response to this sense of multiple roots of morality is to claim that no systematic account of normative ethics should be attempted. Different circumstances, roles, personal histories, and so on make different sorts of moral consideration more or less appropriate, and this is an ineluctable fact of moral life. A relation with one’s spouse or child is seldom best regulated by ‘the general interest’ or ‘universalizable maxims,’ a legislator cannot generally rely on personal virtue to tell her how to shape a complex piece of environmental law, and in our relations with animals we cannot regulate our conduct as if we were operating in a reciprocal realm of rationality. Experience and wisdom, and caring, not theory, enable us to act and deliberate well in a complex moral world (see Larmore 1987). This view was given some impetus by, and finds continuing support in, a growing literature on moral development, where individuals who score highly on traditional tests of moral-theoretical sophistication may do poorly in practice in comparison with those capable of greater personal caring, empathy, and adaptiveness (see Gilligan 1982, Damasio 1994). Defenders of normative theory insist that systematic ambition is an essential antidote to arbitrariness or narrow-mindedness, even though it must of course be combined with suitable motivation and sensitivity. Moral particularists (Dancy 1993) and some feminists (see Card 1991) counter that the systematizing impulse can itself become a form of moral insensitivity and arbitrariness.

This is probably a healthy dialectic in normative ethics. It is important to emphasize, however, that resistance to normative moral theorizing need not be combined with a resistance to metaethical theorizing: moral particularism is often defended on the ground of an account of the meaning of moral concepts or the ground of moral justification. Thus, on one influential view (Ross 1930), morality consists of many mutually independent prima facie duties and permissions, the bearing of which on particular situations is not governed by general rules. Ross grounded his view in a non-naturalist intuitionism in metaethics, and numerous contemporary defenses of Ross-like normative theories or other forms of particularism draw upon the idea that moral concepts are response-dependent (see Dancy 1993) or that fundamental values are plural and incommensurable (see Stocker 1990).

2. Theory Of Value

In the first half of the twentieth century, theory of value (axiology) was a flourishing, central area of philosophy, represented by such major figures as G. E. Moore (1903), John Dewey (1929), C. I. Lewis (1962), and Ralph Barton Perry (1954). It has since gone so thoroughly out of style that it is difficult for a contemporary philosopher to recognize the themes or structure of a book like Perry’s Realms of Value, with its chapters on Motor-Affective Psychology, Gradation, Integration, and Mutation, The Science of Science, and The History of History. This may partly be the result of a familiar tendency within disciplines to subdivide into specialities: ethics, esthetics, rational choice, law, epistemology—all of these are domains of evaluation, yet they seldom are united together under a common rubric. Yet, like specialization generally, it involves some loss of perspective. The value-theoretic aspects of some subdisciplines within philosophy became, at least until fairly recently, relatively invisible (epistemology, for example) or radically de-emphasized (‘philosophical esthetics’). This has also given the mistaken impression that the so-called ‘fact value’ distinction is disciplinary—ethics on one side, science on the other. But value theorists would be quick to point out that values (but not simply moral values) as well as facts are fundamentally involved in all areas of human practice and inquiry.

There are excellent reasons for focusing on value as such. There is independent interest in investigating the nature and structure of value. Some questions about objectivity, cognitivism, and realism are familiar from metaethics, but others, such as the distinctions among intrinsic, extrinsic, inherent, and instrumental value, or the holistic vs. atomistic character of value, or the possibility of commensurability or interpersonal comparison, merit sustained scrutiny.

Moreover, that moral philosophy in the twentieth century has been overwhelming preoccupied with questions of rightness and obligation (deontic or directive categories), rather than questions of value (axiological or evaluative categories), has given us a lopsided picture of morality and of the ‘motivation problem’ for ethics. Perhaps an ought judgment expresses some motivation on the speaker’s part, but a judgment that a way of life would be valuable seems to be more dependent on the actual or potential motivation of those to whom it is applied. Further, evaluative judgments in general seem more directly responsive to facts of psychology, sociology, and history than directive judgments (see Wiggins 1998, Williams 1985). The emphasis on deontic judgment has also tended to divorce philosophical ethics from value-involving subjects where duty plays a less conspicuous role. Kant and Hume, for example, saw quasiesthetic evaluative judgment as at the foundation of morality.

Finally, a certain lost opportunity for philosophy for mutual enlightenment between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy occurred during the twentieth century. Moore (1903) observed that the philosopher whose outlook seemed closest to his own was Brentano (1902). Theorists within the phenomenological tradition in philosophy and psychology, such as Kohler (1938) and Heidegger (1962), explored our experience of value in life in ways quite comprehensible from the standpoint of, say, Dewey. Frankfurt School (see Habermas 1990) criticisms of an overly narrow construal of value can be read alongside a growing body of Anglo-American literature critical of current notions of value in philosophy and economics, especially in rational choice theory and cost-benefit analysis (see Maclean 1986, Anderson 1993).


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