Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Levels of Generality in Moral Thinking

Before returning to more detailed questions about the relationship of Ross' views to those of Kant it is worth pausing to think about a basic reason why there is emerging a tendency amongst some to invoke Ross as a kind of corrective to Kant. This seems to rest on a claim about the nature of generality in moral thinking. Basically, the suspicion seems to be of the following order. Kant sets out for us a claim for universal principles and this claim poses a general point about the need for generalization for there to be moral principles. However, work on the examples Kant gives in the Groundwork tends to produce frustration on a number of grounds, one of which concerns the alleged "formality" of Kant's treatment in echo of the famous complaint made by Hegel.

In response to this there then tends to emerge a concern with thinking about how to relate formal universal principles to maxims that specifically are such as to be action-guiding. The result of that inquiry tends to be that there is a felt need for something like what Richard Hare once described as "rules of thumb". These rules are meant to play some kind of role (as happens in versions of rule-utilitarianism) that gives us a safeguard way of protecting the principles of "common sense morality" whilst admitting a base of reference to universal principles when trouble arises. This kind of solution produces dissatisfaction of a different sort if the "rules" in question are not thought specific enough and from there we can easily move to invocation of Ross' prima facie duties. The problem, however, with that mode of reconciliation between Ross and Kant is precisely the difficulty that Ross' prima facie duties are not, strictly considered, really duties at all (as demonstrated in previous postings). Then it turns out that perhaps what was "missing" in the response to Kant might turn out to be something more basic than the first response suggested, namely, a comprehension of practical reason. That indicates the rationale for a position like that of Stratton-Lake. 

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