Tuesday, January 01, 2019

British Ethical Theorists 0001: Introduction

I will be taking a class this semester on the British moral theorists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Anybody who has studied much moral philosophy at all would recognize the names Henry Sidgwick, W.D. Ross, and G.E. Moore. Sidgwick is still regarded as the best of the Utilitarian theorists. G.E. Moore brought us the Naturalistic Fallacy. W.D. Ross gave us the idea of prima facie moral duties. These are simply the three best known members of this particular school of philosophical ethics.

In general, they are known as non-naturalists. That is to say, they believe that morality has, at its foundation, some sort of non-natural moral property. We know about this property through our faculty of moral intuition. This means they are also intuitionists.

Desirism, in contrast, is a naturalist moral theory - it holds that moral properties are natural properties. Plus, it views moral intuitions as being merely the prejudices of our age.

This contrast between the BETs (as I will be calling this school) and desirism ought to be enlightening.

For this class, we will be reading: Hurka, Thomas (2014). British Ethical Theorists From Sidgwick to Ewing. Oxford University Press.

In this series, what I would like to do is read through the chapters as if I am preparing lecture notes on the class, reporting (or lecturing) on what Hurka has to say about these authors and, of course, offering my take on those claims. The book is arranged topically (as opposed to by author), so we get an overview on what each author says about the relevant topics.

For example, the first chapter deals with the basic moral concepts. Since all of the authors in this area were non-natural realists, they held that the basic moral concepts referred to some basic non-natural value property. Everything else gets reduced to or expressed in terms of those properties. For example, Hurka tells us that G.E. Moore held (at least during part of his career) that "good" was the basic concept. All other moral concepts could be expressed in terms of "good". For example, the right act is the act that produced the most good. The other theorists had their own ways of relating moral terms.

As I mentioned above, this will bring up the first big difference between desirism and these theories. Desirism holds that there are no irreducible moral terms. All value terms - including moral terms - can be reduced to statements about relationships between states of affairs and desires. However, desirism is still interested in questions of how the different terms relate to each other. For example, it rejects Moore's attempt to reduce "right" to "good" in terms of "bringing about the most good". Instead, desirism takes "right" to be "that act that a person with good desires and lacking bad desires would have done in those circumstances".

The discussion to come will get into disputes like this in more detail, comparing and contrasting the two systems and looking at the arguments for and against each.

Some of my previous posts have already taken on some of these authors. For example, I have taken on Moore's naturalistic fallacy and Sidgwick's arguments that morality cannot be primarily concerned with desires. This project should allow me to develop those ideas in a lot more detail, and add a number of additional considerations as well.

So, I will try to get started on this soon. There is a lot of ground that we have to cover and a little time to cover it.

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