Moral Responsibility: The Ways of Scepticism (Routledge Studies in Ethics and Moral Theory)


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They are, respectively, the anti-foundational and anti-theoretical character of moral reflection, and the rethinking of the relationship we have with our interiority that is relevant for ethics as informed by the notion of truth. I am grateful to Richard J.

Bernstein, Akeel Bilgrami, and Russell B. The Principles of Psychology vol.

II, James is neither interested in advancing any theory of morality whatsoever, nor in individuating the principles of human nature on which such an ethics should be erected. His interest is rather that of showing the shape moral reflection should take to meet the difficulties of the moral life it should address instead of castling itself behind a moral theory or some metaphysical picture of human beings.

Moral reflection, according to James, should have an exhortative character, its point being that of gesturing toward the varieties of ways in which we can be — or fail to be — touched by situations that prompt our sensibility and understanding to respond ethically. In MPML James explores the various aspects of our moral life, and shows how a deceptive picture of moral psychology and epistemology hinders us from resolving some of its difficulties.

Consequently, if moral reflection aspires to have a genuine grasp of the moral life, it should rethink its very credentials and investigate in the first instance what relationship it should entertain with the varieties of moral experiences articulating our moral life. I will be very selective in my use of James, although these themes pervade his whole philosophy and find their most distinctive voice in his masterpiece The Principle of Psychology , which will linger in the background of my investigations.

In his writings on pragmatism and the mind James struggles to articulate his insights about the interconnectedness of a refutation of a theoretical — as opposed to a practical — understanding of our mental lives with a refutation of a picture of truth as copying and representation. My claim will be that, if we frame MPML in this broader context, a much richer image of moral thought — one very instructive for the contemporary debate — will emerge. The aim of the lecture-essay is not in fact the advancement of any moral theory, but the investigation into its very possibility.

This point has been surprisingly overlooked in the critical literature on James. Franzese argues that a more attentive inquiry will reveal how. Once freed from these misplaced attributions and returned to its proper fieldwork, an opposite picture of moral reflection will be revealed through the lines of the essay. In MPML James is interested in showing if, how, and to what extent our moral life can be pictured and understood by means of moral reflection.

Even metaphysical discussions were for James au fond urged by moral constraints and permeated by moral interests. It is thus difficult to tell the difference between MPML, widely acknowledged as either his only or his clearest work in moral philosophy, and the widespread references to morality pervading his other writings. He writes. But this comparative inattention to the traditional problems and theories of ethics was offset by the strength of his moral convictions.

His total expression was infused with moral zeal — his personal code was rigorous and unmistakable. These two aspects — namely, biography and philosophy — must be kept in contrastive tension, since the subordination of one to the other will bring us either to an aprioristic conception of philosophy or to the very opposite annihilation of it, a flattening of one on the other will obscure the nature of their connection. In the essay James pictures the relationship between moral reflection and moral life neither as one of derivation nor of reduction, but rather of mutual definition.

Moral reflection emerges from our internal understanding of the practical contingencies of our moral life, but cannot be reduced to them. Moral reflection makes sense on the background of some shared practices and ideas, and the rationality it expresses is internal to such practices and ideas. At the same time, by means of moral reflection we investigate the very conceivability of a certain moral idea or experience, so that its role is not merely descriptive.

I will go back to this characterization in the next section. Let me now move to the other family of readings, namely the ones which misplace the distinctive voice of MPML. Let me quote the passage in its entirety, since it is very rich and eloquent. The word theory is italicized so as to emphasize the contrast with the moralizing espousal of normative propositions, something that James did in profusion throughout his career. The difference in our respective reading amounts thus to a difference in our different reading of his conception of truth.

Its direction of fit is from the world to the mind, and yet the world that is relevant for ethics is one of our ordinary practices and shared values. Truth consists in what is interesting to notice, what is worth and not merely useful having and requires an active endorsement on the part of the subject, who must pay attention to its moral experiencing as it is embedded in his ordinary practices of truth- and value-giving. His goal was that of showing the shortcomings and difficulties of characterizing the aim of moral reflection as the achievement of a normative moral system.

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However, this critique makes space for another conception of moral reflection sketched in MPML, one that has a distinctive reflective status that must not to be conflated with the moral ideas pervading his other works, even if it entertains a close relationship with them. Instead, contra Gale, I will argue that in MPML James canvasses a precise picture of the entanglement between moral reflection and moral life that is neither one of mutual incompatibility nor one of reduction — one that does not lead to any utilitarian moral theory.

As James argues, an ethics must be hortatory rather than prescriptive: it must convey the unsatisfactoriness or the adequacy of a certain moral idea or conduct, and the means by which it should do that is not by pointing to some alleged principle they violate or honor, but rather by describing the assumptions on which their endorsement rests and inviting us to challenge its validity. Moral reflection should thus be descriptive rather than prescriptive, and it should be articulated along the experiences and experimentations human beings endorse in their ordinary practices.

This does not mean however that moral reflection consists in a descriptions devoid of any normative element; in fact the dichotomy between the merely descriptive and normative, as well as that between facts and values, is refuted by James as a residuum of a Cartesian framework, inherited and developed in opposite directions but with same unsatisfactory results by both British empiricism and German rationalism.

This refutation, whose articulation falls outside the scope of the present essay, 9 allows James to portray moral reflection as an activity that is at the same time descriptive of our moral life and normatively inspired.

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James is describing not what human beings are , but rather what human beings do. Furthermore, he is describing not what they do according to some principle of aiming at some result, but what they do of themselves when following a certain idea or responding to a certain experience. Moral reflection aims at the understanding of our moral experiences as they are displayed in our ordinary practices, and thus it must be as tentative and experimental as the moral life in which those practices take place.

The criticism of a moral position cannot be made from a standpoint that is external to the moral life in which it is embedded, but only from the internal, as a failure to meet its own standards of rationality. However, far from being a concession to relativism, this is a point about the kind or realism James is canvassing. Claiming that in order to criticize a certain moral position you must be embedded in a certain form of life, that is be able to see things in a certain way, does not commit us to picture moral criticism as beyond the limit of rational discourse, since being embedded in a certain form of life is precisely what our moral criticism is about.

The Ways of Scepticism, 1st Edition

So its full articulation must wait till section 8, when the stage will be set with all the necessary elements. In the second paragraph of MPML he writes that moral skepticism, or rather the ethical skeptic, is not an acceptable moral position which we can discuss at a reflective level, since by denying the very existence of a shared moral reality it cuts itself off from moral discourse altogether. To begin with, he must be distinguished from all those who are satisfied to be ethical sceptics.

He will not be a sceptic; therefore so far from ethical scepticism being one possible fruit of ethical philosophizing, it can only be regarded as that residual alternative to all philosophy which from the outset menaces every would-be philosopher who may give up the quest discouraged, and renounce his original aim. That aim is to find an account of the moral relations that obtain among things, which will weave them into an unity of a stable system, and make the world what one may call a genuine universe from the ethical point of view.

The moral skeptic avoids his responsibility to take part in the moral community, and thus his attitude raises other kinds of questions and considerations than those tackled in MPML. He continues by saying that. If in fact we were to throw the ideal of moral reflection inside those of the moral life it would suffocate them, smothering the moral life itself. Abstract principles of systematization, such as those expressed in moral principles, violate the very tentative nature of moral facts and experiences, as they are articulated in our ordinary moral lives. Robert Talisse and Micah Hester have beautifully put this point.

Just as the world forces us to hold beliefs and thus to act, we are likewise compelled to make judgments, and the elements of experience that compel them, are as real as any other aspect of experience. Hence your visual experience of the ink spot on this page which comprise this very sentence is, on the view of the radical empiricist, on a par with your judgment that your favorite painting is a work of beauty, your feeling or regret at the remembrance of a missed opportunity to do good, and your repulsion to the idea of the unnecessary suffering of innocents.

Unlike traditional philosophical systems, which attempt either to reduce moral experience to something more scientifically manageable such as pleasure and pain, or to elevate moral experience to something other-worldly, supernatural, and as such inexplicable, the radical empiricist bids us to confront the facts of experience directly and on their own terms. This follows from the basic tenets of radical empiricism.

What is at stake in moral reflection is our very perspective on those facts articulating our moral experiencing, and thus it should have a character that is as open as the facts it tries to account for. They write. James rejection of the traditional philosophical aspiration for a comprehensive moral theory, however, does not constitute an abandoning of the fundamental question, How ought we to live?

We must act in the absence of moral certainty; thus, the question of how to live becomes crucial. So, how does James approach the question of how we ought to live? According to James a piece of moral philosophy must be suggestive rather than prescriptive: it must conveys the depths and the trivialities of our moral experiences, rather than prescribing which course of action should be appropriate accordingly to some alleged moral principle.

The most such science can do is to help us to catch ourselves up and check ourselves, if we start to reason or to behave wrongly; and to criticize ourselves more articulately after we have made mistakes. When doing moral philosophy we do something different from offering theories: we try to make sense of the practices surrounding our judgment of values and our attribution of significance. In the next section I shall venture into the very dialectic of MPML, in order to present its structure and arguments.

What is interesting in theories is rather what lies beneath them: that is, facts. In On Some Hegelism James writes. This insight acquires the utmost importance in the ethical discourse, where moral theories have the presumption to regulate the varieties of moral facts from the outside, missing in this way the tentative character of the moral experiences in which they are embedded.

MPML opens with the opposite auspice that there will be no ethical theory, and thus no ethical truth, until there will be human experiencing. Theories of morality tend to prescribe which facts are relevant for moral assessment, and how to individuate them. James writes in the opening of the essay. In other words, there can be no final truth in ethics any more than in physics, until the last man has had his experience and said his say. According to James in ethics there are three questions that must be kept apart, and thus three kinds of investigations can be addressed in respect to our moral life: the psychological question about the origin of our moral ideas, the metaphysical question about the meaning of our moral words, and the casuistic question about the measure of goods which human beings recognize.

Had we been different from how we actually are, different questions would have arisen. Read in this way, the central parts of the essay present various aspects of our moral life, with an overview of the difficulties peculiar to each aspect of it. The role of the moral philosopher is a descriptive one, and consists in accounting at a reflective level how we fail to appreciate this variety if we portray our moral life as the establishment of moral principles independently from our activities of endorsement and valuing the relevant moral experiences. Both Franzese and myself agree that in the essay James is critical of a certain way of doing moral philosophy as the advancement of philosophical requirements on our very moral phenomenology from the above, but while I take those sections as together an exploration and a rescue of some aspects of our moral life from a deceived way of looking at them, Franzese takes them as the exposition of three variations of the foundational project James wants to debunk.

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This question has been explored in depth by both the intuitionist and the evolutionist school. James pays tribute to the associationist tradition for its emphasis on the empirical roots of our moral distinctions, however criticizing the idea that the mechanism of association exhaust all there is to say about the nature of moral ideas.

There are, in fact, many ideas that cannot be described in terms of mere association between states of affairs and simple sensation of pleasure or pain. James writes that,. Moral ideals bring with them an element of novelty, because it is only through embracing them that we envision the distinctive character of a certain situation. For example, betrayal, from a detached description, would include both the facts involved and their consequences — in terms of pleasure and pain — on the subjects involved, but not, for example, its character of seriousness.

What has gone missing is the distinctive contribution that our endorsement of such an idea or perception confers on their moral character. This distinction between the evaluation we can give of a certain state of affairs or an action on the basis of its consequences, and the one we can give according to the character of the agent has immediate ethical consequences: while in the first case we refer to states of things or actions roughly: outcomes and their relationship with some alleged principle of goodness or rightness , in the second case we refer to what the subject envisions and how he pictures the situation in hand or the action.

James portrays this contrast as one between the evaluation of how things or action are — in terms of their consequences — and how one sees them — in terms of the involvement the subject has with the situation or the action in hand. According to James, the importance of these thick 28 ethical concepts consists not only in their being descriptive, but rather in the kind of description they provide of a certain situation or action.

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