By In Metaethics Comments (33)

Do We Have a Shared Concept of ‘Rightness’?

I’ve been meaning to post this question for a while, but kept thinking that I ought to do some proper research on the topic.  Fortunately, I’ve now given up on that thought.

So here’s the source of the question.  I keep finding authors that seem to understand ‘right’ in very different ways; so much so that I wonder if there really is any shared concept here at all.

I think ‘right’ is most commonly treated as meaning something like permissible, so that an action is right iff it is permissible.  But there are at least some instances where this leads to statements that seem quite strange in ordinary language.  Suppose you choose to have a sesame seed bagel rather than a poppy seed bagel for breakfast.  What you’ve done is presumably permissible, but it seems a stretch to say “You did a right thing by having a sesame seed bagel this morning”.  Or imagine you’re not a baseball fan, but have been dragged to a game by friends.  You catch a homerun ball.  There is a boy nearby who obviously loves the game, and is a great fan of the player who hit the homerun.  Still, you decide to keep the ball for yourself (though it means nothing to you) rather than giving it to this boy.  I think we could say that your actions are permissible, but would we really want to say that it was a right thing that you kept the ball?


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By In Metaethics Comments (23)

Shafer-Landau and Reason-Giving Facts

In his recent Moral Realism: A Defence, Russ Shafer-Landau argues that “moral facts are themselves intrinsically reason-giving, i.e. supply reasons for action regardless of the content of specific moral demands and their relation to other intrinsically or necessarily reason-giving kinds of considerations” (204). While he acknowledges that such intrinsically reasoning-giving facts may seem mysterious, Shafer-Landau attempts to show that we do, in fact, embrace such in other domains, particularly epistemology.  I’m a bit suspicious of this move.


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By In Normative Ethics, Value Theory Comments (30)

Drowning and the Primacy of the Virtues

In a recent review essay, “Morality and Virtue: An Assessment of Some Recent Work in Virtue Ethics“, David Copp and PEA Soup’s own David Sobel present what I take to be a common understanding of the relationship between right action and virtuous people:

It is facts about the alternatives a person must decide among, including such things as the impact the alternatives will have on people’s ability to meet their needs, that determine what a person ought to do. It is not facts about what a virtuous person would want her to do, or facts about the motives that the person would actually be acting from if she were to do the various alternatives. If someone is drowning, for example, and if you can save her at no risk and at negligible cost to yourself, you ought to save her because otherwise her life will be wasted. It is because a life would otherwise be wasted that a virtuous person would want you to save her (552).

Virtuous people are disposed to perform or approve of actions that are antecedently right (perhaps those that maximize happiness, or which are in accordance with some prior set of duties). Here I wish to argue in defence of an alternative embraced by many (but certainly not all) virtue theorists: that it is the approvals of the virtuous that determine which actions are right (and which states of affairs have various values). In particular, I aim to undercut the main intuitions which appear to support the position of Copp and Sobel with respect to the drowning case.


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