30 January 1998
Thank you for your letter of 18 January, with your notes on unit 15 of Reason, Values and Conduct. By now you should have received the essay questions for units 12-15, together with the Shap Conference leaflet and letter. As you might expect, my paper will be to a large extent based on the latter units of the Pathways programme!
285-289. limitations of ethical theory It is worth remembering that the claim that an ethical 'theory' does not give us detailed information about right or wrong behaviour is controversial. (The point is developed in 300-302 below.) It does not follow from the meaning of 'theory' as such. A highly structured account that played a large part in answering every moral question we were likely to ask would be a 'theory'. I just don't think that such an account can be given. (On the other hand, Kant did.)
290-294. supererogatory action This is excellent. I would only question your talk of 'duty to a higher power'. I agree that the belief that 'God is acting through me' can be a correct characterisation of the phenomenology of supererogatory action — how it seems from the 'inside' — but one always has to remember that the power comes from our own moral vision. What is 'objectively' there is the ideal that I perceive, and it is my perception that gives the ideal its power to move me to action.
295-299. limits to the subject matter of ethics In these paragraphs I raise two different issues that come under the heading of 'the relation between moral and political philosophy'. The second involves a critique of Kant and Mill. The first, which I put to one side, is the possibility of a 'robust' conception of the state. On Hegel's and Bradley's view, I derive my true identity from the state or the 'social organism'. I can only realise myself, achieve 'positive' freedom, within a structure that is larger than myself. My duty to the state is thus more than my duty to other individuals.
In the text, I don't try to attack this view, but simply put it to one side. I think what I should say, however, is what Macmurray said in the 50's in his excellent Gifford Lectures published as The Self as Agent and Persons in Relation (Faber), that our universe is a personal universe and not an organic one. The state is thus a means, not an end in itself. (Macmurray has been out of fashion for quite a while. His work is now making something of a comeback as it has emerged that he is Tony Blair's favourite philosopher!)
300-302. the meaning of ethical theory I think that there are definite arguments for the objectivity of morals, but they are not knock-down ones. This is not hair splitting. The previous units show that it is no easy matter to make the argument appear convincing — setting out the context, answering objections and so on. But I believe the argument to be a clear and strong one. Where more work needs to be done — and will always need to be done — is in countering each new move made by the defender of moral subjectivism, as well as relating the relatively abstract considerations of moral philosophy to the problems we face in our lives.
The situation where a philosophical position, once established, needs to be continually defended and re-articulated is a very familiar one in philosophy. Off hand, I can't think of any example of a philosophical argument that has succeeded in drawing a line under a problem or dispute, settling it for all time! What is significant about the question of the objectivity of morals, is that it is the subject of particularly heated debate at the present time.
— o O o —
— Well done! Just the essay to go now. I wish you luck with that. Then perhaps you can start thinking about how you are going to put together your Diploma portfolio.