Wednesday, February 18, 2004

James Rachels (1941-2003) on Ethics

Ethics is the subject that attempts to provide directions for conduct: Should a manufacturer advertise a product as being better than it is? Should a lawyer suppress evidence that tends to show that his client is guilty? Should a physician help a dying patient who, because of constant misery, wishes to end his life sooner? And so on, endlessly.

Ethical theory, on the other hand, concerns itself with questions about ethics. These questions divide naturally into two categories. First, ethical theorists want to know about the relations between the various reasons and principles we use in justifying particular moral judgments. Can they be fitted together into a unified theory? Can these diverse principles be reduced to one ultimate principle, which underlies and explains all the rest? Much of modern moral philosophy has consisted in the elaboration of such theories: egoism, Kantianism, and utilitarianism, each purporting to have discovered the ultimate principle of ethics, are the most familiar.

Second, there are questions about the status of ethics. Are there any objective truths in ethics which our moral judgments may correctly or incorrectly represent? Or are our moral judgments nothing more than the expression of personal feelings, or perhaps the codes of the societies in which we live? Often it is helpful in dealing with such issues to analyze the meaning of moral concepts--to examine what is meant by such words as 'good', 'right', and 'ought'.

Twenty years ago the prevailing orthodoxy among English-speaking philosophers was that ethical theory, but not ethics itself, is the proper concern of philosophy. Philosophers, it was said, are theoreticians, not ministers or guidance counselors. The more radical philosophers even excluded what I have called the "first part" of ethical theory from their purview; they restricted their attention entirely to the analysis of moral language. The result was a body of literature which seemed, to those outside academic circles, curiously empty and sterile.

Today this attitude has been almost completely abandoned; the best writing by moral philosophers combines ethical theory with a concern for specific moral issues. Part of the reason for this change is that the traumas of the past two decades--especially the protest movements against racism, sexism, and the Vietnam war--forced philosophers to rethink their role in society. But there is a deeper reason, internal to philosophy itself. The rejection of ethics was the result of a preoccupation among philosophers during the first half of this century with understanding the different kinds of inquiry. Science, mathematics, religion, and ethics are very different from one another, and, as philosophers tried to sort out the differences, the idea took hold that philosophy's distinctive contribution is to analyze and clarify the concepts used in each area. It was an appealing idea, with ample historical precedent. After all, the patron saint of philosophy, Socrates, had conceived of his work mainly as an investigation into definitions; and the great figures such as Aristotle and Kant had appealed, at key points in their work, to linguistic considerations for support. Philosophers, then, were to study not ethics but only the language of ethics. That philosophers are not ethicists seemed as natural a conclusion as that philosophers are not scientists or mathematicians.

By the mid-1960s, however, it was becoming clear that the recognition of differences among kinds of inquiry does not require that they be pursued in isolation from one another. Indeed, separation may not be desirable or even possible. (One cannot do physics without mathematics.) Today philosophers generally do not recognize sharp boundaries between their own work and work in other areas. Thus W. V. Quine, whom many consider the most eminent living American philosopher, regards his work as continuous with that of theoretical science. Links between current philosophy and psychology, linguistics, and computer science are everywhere apparent. The reuniting of ethical theory with ethics, then, is merely a part of a larger movement within philosophy, to bring back into proper relation the disparate inquiries.

(James Rachels, "Can Ethics Provide Answers?" chap. 1 in Applied Ethics and Ethical Theory, ed. David M. Rosenthal and Fadlou Shehadi, vol. 1 of Ethics in a Changing World [Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1988], 3-24, at 4-5 [italics in original] [essay originally published in 1980])

Reader Mail

Dear Professor:

Actually, the quote comes from James Anthony Froude, the British historian, describing the marriage of Thomas Carlyle and his wife Jane, who fought bitterly and constantly.

I have been a faithful reader of your Blog since it was first linked by Volokh, often visiting three times a day to see what new gems you have unearthed or generated yourself. Thanks. Now that I have made contact with you, I shall occasionally send you items of interest.

Robert Hessen
Senior Research Fellow
Hoover Institution
Stanford University
Stanford CA 94305

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