On Philosophy

August 25, 2007

Ethics And Philosophy

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 12:00 am

Ethics and philosophy have a strange relationship. One way of seeing the philosophical interest in ethics is as an effort to understand it. As such the job of the philosopher is not really to uncover what we should be doing, but to develop frameworks that describe ethics, a task often described as meta-ethics. But the philosophical interest in ethics could also be construed as a search for answers to various normative questions that present themselves to us. And if that is why we are philosophically interested in ethics then what ethics is becomes a background consideration, with the primary concern being making recommendations about how to act. Of course these aren’t necessarily exclusive options, it is quite possible to be interested in both; however I think we have good reason to pursue the first approach and almost completely ignore the second.

The fundamental problem with understanding the goal of philosophical investigations into ethics as uncovering a system that can guide out actions is that there is a disconnect between that goal and how philosophy actually contributes to society. The best ethical philosophy has little or no influence on how most people actually act, and so if the goal of philosophy in this case is to provide guidance on how to act then philosophy would be like science in a world where it was ignored by engineers, philosophy would be failing to achieve its goals in a significant way. The primary acknowledged role of science is to make predictions. But if those predictions were ignored by engineers then science would be superfluous. What is the point of making accurate predictions if they aren’t actually used? Similarly philosophy about ethics, when its role is construed as being to provide guidance on how we should act, is equally superfluous, since it doesn’t actually inform how most people act.

Of course it is open to some debate whether the best philosophy influences how people act. It really depends on how you define what the best philosophy is. Certainly there are philosophers who have had a significant and lasting impact on how people act. Nietzsche for example had a significant influence on German fascism and Marx had an even stronger influence on communism. But although I would say that Nietzsche and Marx are interesting philosophers I would not rank them as among the best philosophers. The argument for counting Nietzsche and Marx among the best philosophers is an attitude that evaluates philosophy by how gripping (for lack of a better word) the ideas in it are. There are several problems with this attitude. The first is that what is gripping is as much a product of the people who are exposed to the idea as the idea itself. The ideas are gripping, we might say, because people were already thinking along those lines, and the philosophers in question just happened to tap into those currents. This destroys the idea of philosophy about ethics as a meaningful source of guidance, since the best philosophy, by this criterion, can only endorse what people want to do anyways, since philosophy that is opposed to people’s desires will not be very popular with them. Secondly, gripping ideas are found in other places besides philosophy. Movies and novels also contain fascinating suggestions, often much more interesting than those found in philosophy. So if the quality of philosophy is judged by how well the ideas resonate with us then many non-philosophers do better philosophy than professional philosophers. Which undermines the idea of philosophy as a discipline, and with it the idea that it should be making recommendations as to how to act. So, to retreat from the idea that the best philosophers are those who have the most interesting ideas, we need to accept the idea that studying philosophy makes one a better philosopher. And if that is the case then we can safely conclude that the best philosophy (as found in philosophy journals) has little or no influence on most people.

Such considerations seem to force philosophy about ethics to focus on understanding what ethics is rather than what we should do. If the role of philosophy with respect to ethics is just to understand it then the fact that only a few people read and are engaged with ethical philosophy is not a problem. If the point of philosophy is to produce an understanding of ethics then it doesn’t matter how many people understand it, because the quality of the understanding is unaffected by such considerations. Again, we can make an analogy to science. The point of science is also to understand the operation of the world in a precise mathematical way. The fact that few people grasp the precise mathematical description uncovered by science doesn’t mean that science is doing a bad job at this task. Now these considerations might seem to make philosophy irredeemably meta-ethical, meaning that if we decide that ethics is simply a terminological device used to influence the behavior of people then we should stop at that and say no more. (In other words philosophy about ends up confined to an extremely abstract domain.) But I don’t think that has to be the case; there is nothing stopping us, if that is our understanding of ethics, from filling in the theory by saying how such terminology is used more precisely, fixing the terms good and evil in some way. Such additional details further our understanding of ethics. And this may mean that in working through all the details certain facts about what we should and shouldn’t do fall out. Indeed, we might even try to get these facts to fall out of the theory as part of our process of evaluating the theory. The difference then is not necessarily the kinds of philosophical claims we make, but our focus. If we philosophically approach ethics with the purpose of understanding ethics then our primary concern is developing a theory about ethics, leaving what we should and shouldn’t do as footnotes (with the idea that the correctness of these recommendations is the least important thing to worry about).


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