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March 24, 2004

the limitations of analytic moral philosophy

Analytic philosophy is the dominant tradition in the English-speaking world today, and I belong to it. (I was trained in the rival tradition known as "continental" philosophy, but have moved over; see this post for the distinction.) It recently occurred to me that analytic moral philosophy really is "analytical"; it takes views, values, and positions from outside of modern philosophy and analyzes them to see whether they are internally consistent, whether they match our intuitions about a range of cases, whether they agree with various other plausible views, and so on. Virtually all modern analytic philosophers endorse some form of what John Rawls called "reflective equilibrium". They think that we should go back and forth between intuitions (which we obtain from outside of philosophy) and philosophical arguments, trying to make each conform to the other. If our intuitions are inconsistent, we should change our intuitions; but if our philosophical arguments are counter-intuitive, we should change our arguments.

Until at least 1900, philosophers were in the business of generating new moral views and positions. Indeed, modern analytical philosophers often analyze the views of long-dead theorists, but they do not develop new moral views of their own. Animal rights is one of the few examples of a moral or political doctrine that arose from philosophical inquiry, in this case, Peter Singer's. In general, philosophers don't possess a method for creating or discovering moral positions, whereas they do have a toolbox for analyzing positions that are, so to speak, "exogenous" to philosophy.

Analysis is useful, but it is not the only kind of relatively abstract and general moral thought that we need. In fact, I tend to agree with Bernard Williams that analysis reduces our confidence in received moral ideas, but our major problem now is that we have not too many but too few, and we need to cherish as many as we can. (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, 1985, p. 117).

March 24, 2004 11:38 AM | category: philosophy | Comments

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