Welcome to another in our regular series providing forums for authors reviewed in NDPR to respond and discuss features of their new books. We are very pleased to welcome Ingmar Persson today, whose new book Inclusive Ethics (OUP 2017) was just reviewed two days ago by David Kaspar for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Ingmar has chosen to do something different this time: Rather than responding directly to the points made in the review, he has written up a guest post about a topic in the book not included in the review, namely, on the point — or lack thereof — of doing moral philosophy. What follows is that post. We encourage our readers to join in on the discussion of what is a very interesting post.
FROM INGMAR PERSSON: The problem what, if any, is the point of (doing) philosophy is itself a philosophical problem. It might even be the fundamental problem of philosophy since, if it lacks any point, there’s apparently no reason to do it. But to find out whether philosophy has any point, we have to philosophize, thereby risking to do something that turns out to be pointless!
Fundamental, though it may be, this problem is rarely discussed. So is the more limited problem the discussion of which in Inclusive Ethics, chap. 12, I’ll now summarize: what, if any, is the point of moral philosophy? More specifically, what’s the intrinsic point of moral philosophy, what is its method of argument designed to accomplish? Sure, moral philosophy can be done as a means to various ends external to it, such as earning a livelihood, getting reputation for smartness or intellectual stimulation.
My proposal is that moral philosophy has an intrinsic point just in case it produces a rational consensus about what’s morally right and wrong, and about the ground and meaning of this. At least an approximation to consensus is required because morality is about what, individually or collectively, we do to each other.
Suppose the morality about which there’s rational consensus can’t be applied – applying it is too intellectually or motivationally demanding for us. Such a morality might be pointless, but that doesn’t mean that moral philosophy that has produced it is pointless. Human beings have created a civilization which is vastly different from the small, tribal societies with a primitive technology which is likely to have shaped their moral dispositions because this is where the overwhelming portion of their history was played out. If moral philosophers dutifully develop the moral kit we carry with us, and this results in something that’s useless today, moral philosophy isn’t at fault.
Now, what are the prospects for a rational consensus about what’s morally right and wrong in all situations we’ll encounter? My conjecture is that there are such deep divides in moral philosophy that these prospects are gloomy. These divides are between
deontologists whose morality comprises the act-omission doctrine and/or the doctrine of the double effect, and consequentialists who reject such moralities;
desert theorists for whom justice consists in getting what you deserve, and those who deny this;
rights theorists who claim we have moral rights e.g. to life, limb and property, and those who reject rights;
theorists who believe we’re morally permitted to be partial ourselves and people near and dear, and those who espouse impartial moralities.
It’s undeniable that we exhibit biases that are irrational. Take the bias towards the near future, which could manifest itself in preferences for a smaller good to a bigger good simply because it’ll be received sooner. Or the ‘cuteness effect’ which could make us favour cute babies to less cute babies with greater needs. These biases are irrational because the mere fact that a future good is closer in time, or a baby is cuter isn’t a reason that could justify preference for it. But even though we realize that these biases are irrational, they keep their grip on us. This indicates that they are ‘hard-wired’, i.e. biases we have because they have served our reproductive fitness.
Similarly, even if we’ve been convinced for ages that there’s no moral difference between harming and letting harm occur, that the concept of desert isn’t applicable to us, etc, we go on feeling more responsible for harm done than for harm not prevented, or that evil-doers deserve punishment (speaking from my own experience). So, it’s understandable if people refuse to believe that these reactions are unsound. Yet, there are philosophical arguments against their validity strong enough to convince many. As a result, normative ethics ends up in an impasse.
It’s futile to hope that metaethics could help it out of this impasse by revealing objective norms that support one side or the other. For in metaethics there’s an equally deep divide between objectivists/externalists and subjectivists/internalists, which renders it unlikely that any objective norm could be so firmly established that it could resolve a deep normative conflict.
There are seemingly irresolvable controversies in other philosophical disciplines, for instance, in epistemology between those who think that our beliefs in the external world, or induction, can be justified, and those who are skeptical. But we can more easily live with these unresolved disagreements than with unresolved disagreements about what is morally right and wrong.
It might be objected that even if philosophers belong to different normative camps, they could agree about what should be done in many situations. For instance, they could agree that it would be wrong to let someone die in order not to lose a button. But to have a point moral philosophy must increase our rational consensus about what’s morally right or wrong; it isn’t enough that it merely underlines what we pre-reflectively know.
Of course, I can’t show that moral philosophy is incapable of significantly increasing our rational consensus by resolving deep disagreements. But as the debates continue the arguments pro et con are bound to become more and more complicated and for that reason alone less likely to be persuasive to all parties.
Even if moral philosophy will get bogged down by inconclusiveness, it’ll generate conceptual refinement which sharpens our understanding of the complexities of morality, and doesn’t this provide moral philosophy with an intrinsic point, at least for its practitioners? Okay, but it seems to me that this is a subsidiary point which could sustain moral philosophy only as long as it is thought to be on the road to increasing rational consensus.
Moral philosophy being pointless – a terrible conclusion. Fortunately, few people keen on it will believe it, least of all younger people. Like people in love who are told the loved one isn’t worth their love, they won’t believe it. They have to find out by hard experience. They start doing moral philosophy, hoping to find conclusive arguments, and soon enough their investments in it are so extensive they continue to avoid sunk costs. In Schopenhauer’s words, they now live off philosophy, for the fun, fame and fortune it may bring rather than for it.