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Jonathan Gorman: Moral Philosophy: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats

25 March 2015

Jonathan is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy, Queen’s University Belfast. His research interests include the application of analytic pragmatic philosophy to historical thought and to law, with associated work in the history of historiography and in legal theory.

Why do people act wrongly? Long-held views about this depend on the thought that we are motivated by our beliefs and by our desires. One view emphasises beliefs: acting wrongly involves believing wrongly, which is a failure of knowledge. Another view emphasises desires: people know well enough what they ought to do; it is just that they want something else. Human moral dilemmas are due either to ignorance or to desire. How, then, should “ethics” be understood?

As with Saint Augustine’s view of time, we understand ethics well enough only so long as no-one asks us too closely about it, so long as we are comfortable acting in accordance with the received ethical wisdom of our own background, so long as we do not have to address problematic cases, so long as we can get through life and its cultural changes without too much guilt or blame, and so long as we close our minds to problems of toleration and justice.

Europe today gets its ethics from its past: religions; writings mythical, fictional and historical; prophets past and present; families; teachers; moral philosophers. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, moral philosophers – often teaching in universities, as now – had sought rational or scientific principles and systems that would make sense of ethics and motivation. The critical testing of society that resulted is part of the democratic foundation of the European idea. Philosophising about ethical concepts derived from Christian heritage eased the development of secular societies and reinforced ideas such as the centrality of duties, the need for compassion, the importance of utilitarian consequences, respect for human rights and the inculcation of virtues.

By the mid-twentieth century there was a sense among some English-speaking philosophers that the historical development of ethical principles had come to an end, with an established ideal of respect for human rights and with social systems increasingly friendly to some version of utilitarianism. A major weakness: many moral philosophers assumed that such principles depended on the beliefs and desires of the citizenry rather than on their philosophy, which claimed no ethical expertise. Only matters of value motivated, and there was no accounting for moral tastes. With no way of reasoning with “totalitarian” ideologies, moral philosophy became irrelevant during the Cold War.

Today, philosophical pragmatism has blurred the distinctions that led moral philosophers to think they had no ethical expertise. Philosophers have thought through fair processes for determining localised ethical outcomes and developed the theory of action, so yielding advanced analyses of justice, norms, rights, freedoms and much more. They now teach “applied” ethics, involving the detail of issues in practical situations, with medical, environmental, business and political ethics highlighted. These are strengths, so long as they are more than a casuistic application of old ethical principles. New practical principles are constantly needed: an immediate opportunity is in developing workable principles of ethics for robotic interaction with human beings. Teaching applied ethics needs to be associated with the latest philosophies of science and action, so grounding the reasoning involved.

Citizens should be educated to reason through the complexities of social life and engage in the ethical processes developed from respect for fairness and justice. To learn philosophy is to learn to reason and so to think about ethical issues in a rational way. That is its central strength. We have a comparatively civilised society, but if this is weakened our understanding of the sophisticated moral concepts required for it will also be weakened. Imaginable threats are that ethics teaching will be taken over entirely by versions of religion that have little respect for our rational moral understanding. A further threat is that reasoning about practical problems becomes entirely legalistic.

We often think of ethical principles as standing above the fray in some aloof and authoritative eternity. Yet Magna Carta, impacting all common law countries, placed law above real power, as if it sought to rival ethics in this status. It has been said that law is worthless unless it is enforceable, but this is not so for ethics, which has authority despite that apparent weakness. It is to be hoped that we continue to think that law and government are subject to ethics and not vice versa. We hope never to need a new Magna Carta to reinforce the priority of ethics. If it is ever needed, it will be moral philosophers who have to write it.

About This Series

This opinion series explores what ethics currently means to Irish researchers across a variety of disciplines and was led by the RIA Committee for Ethical, Political, Legal and Philosophical Studies and was a contribution to President Higgins’ Ethics Initiative in 2014/15.

The views and opinions expressed by authors are their own and do not reflect the position of the Academy, but are simply an illustration of the various opinions reflective of the diverse Academy Committee membership.

Ethics Initiative

The President of Ireland’s Ethics Initiative is the second in a series of public seminars and reflections that President Higgins is holding during his term of office. This series aims to explore, throughout all aspects of society, the topic of ethics and the challenge and invitation of living ethically.

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