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September 08, 2005

against "systematizing" in ethics

In a recent comment, Metta Spencer asks, "Iím ... curious about your notion that systemizing ethical principles is not a good way to go. I would love to hear more about that. I suppose itís more than just not being a Kantian, but i can't fill in the blanks to guess what you mean, and there aren't citations in these blog thingies." I thought an answer would be worth a full post, so here goes. My position could be summarized as follows:


1. There is a category of concepts that includes the traditional virtues and vices, many institutions (such as marriage and democracy), and many emotions (certainly including love). These concepts have the following features:

a. They are indispensable for moral reasoning. We cannot, for example, do without the concept of "love."
b. They are "thick" terms, in Bernard Williams' sense. That is, they combine fact and value. For instance, to say that someone "loves" someone else is to make a factual claim that is also essentially laden with moral evaluation.
c. They have moral significance, but it is unpredictable. Sometimes their presence makes an act better than it would be otherwise; sometimes, it makes the act worse. (This idea is the heart of Jonathan Dancy's "particularism.")
d. They have vague borders. We can use them effectively to communicate, yet they cannot be defined by pointing to any essential common features. They are examples of what Wittgenstein called "family-resemblance" words.
e. Their vagueness and unpredictability reflect truths about the world, or at least reflect our accumulated experience of life. We know, for instance, that "love" can mean many things and has an unpredictable moral significance. Thus we should not try to gain moral clarity by splitting "love" into two categories (e.g., eros and agape). ďLoveĒ is not just the union of two concepts, one good and the other bad. Part of the definition of ďloveĒ is that it can be either good or bad, or can easily change from good to bad (or vice-versa), or can be good and bad at the same time in various complex ways.
2. If indispensable moral concepts are also unpredictable and vaguely defined, then moral theory has severe limitations, because moral theory is composed of concepts, abstracted from particular circumstances. That is true not only of Kantian theory, but also of utilitarianism and virtue ethics.

3. What justifies the use of a "thick" moral concept in a particular context is not a theory but a story, one that describes what happened earlier and later with reference to people's motivations, purposes, and beliefs. There is much more to say about the logic of narrative and how it supports moral judgment, but my view essentially follows J.L. Austin.

Citations: I advanced part of this argument in a book entitled Living Without Philosophy: On Narrative, Rhetoric, and Morality. However, Dancy's ideas about particularism, acknowledged in that book, are now much more central to my position. My latest views are explained and defended in my manuscript entitled The Myth of Paolo and Francesca: Poetry, Philosophy, and Adultery in Dante and Modern Times, which is out for review by publishers. A summary is online.

Posted by peterlevine at September 8, 2005 08:19 AM

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