Thursday, 18 March 2010

Moral Philosophy and Moral Disagreement

In a recent posting over at Pea Soup there is a discussion, set off by Ralph Wedgwood concerning whether there is significant disagreement amongst moral philosophers concerning specific moral judgments. The argument Wedgwood makes is to the effect that there is not a general disagreement amongst moral philosophers and, in the process, he argues that moral philosophers have frequently been in the vanguard of liberalising attitudes, citing, as examples, the cases of homosexuality and capital punishment. The general case Wedgwood makes is that there is something in the nature of philosophy's fostering of a critical attitude that leads philosophers to be specifically agents of such liberalisation. 

The posting by Wedgwood raises thus two related but distinct questions: is there general agreement between moral philosophers regardless of their adherence to different meta-ethical views and does this alleged agreement lead to a convergence on positions that promote liberalisation? These are good questions though rather difficult to answer. Part of the problem here is that much of the debate amongst moral philosophers is not strictly about specific judgments, at least that is so outside the specialist area of practical ethics. When moral philosophers engage in practical ethics they are, by contrast, exhibiting bases for disagreement on concrete questions.

The question of the disagreement that does exist strikes me as more interesting than a suggestion of a convergence on a liberalising view. If we take the central areas of practical ethics on which such disagreement currently centres they include the wide areas of bio-ethics and ethical questions connected to war and peace. On these topics the disagreements that exist often cross liberal/conservative lines inasmuch as such lines are stable in philosophical terms. For example, in the area of war and peace, there are reasons for disquiet about "just war" doctrines that can be voiced both by those on the pacifist side of an argument and on the side of those who feel that conduct of soldiers is too tightly constrained by such arguments. The former would tend to be "liberal", the latter "conservative". But the "centre ground" of the debate, if there is one, would draw out the difficulties of the terrain in a more general sense. It is far from clear to me that the ensuing discussions and clarifications have produced a liberalising consensus though it is true that when philosophers join explicit public debate on these issues they tend to urge positions that require some sense of legality to be brought to bear on war so most philosophers, on grounds related to that, had problems of one sort or another with the second Gulf War.

However, the general claim for a liberalising effect of the discussions that take place within the area of moral philosophy is not always so clear. For example, the area of abortion has tended to encourage both a view that there are rights here that accrue to women as those whose bodies are, in some sense, at issue. But this has not prevented there being some general sense, that has be weighed in the balance with this, that there are considerations that attach to the fetus, that it is not, as John Locke once put it, merely a "vegetable". If Locke's position was generally adopted there wouldn't tend to be any basis for restrictions on the "right" to abortion but few legislatures view that as correct and the philosophical discussion has not tended toward that view though it would be a "liberal" one.

The cases on which Wedgwood relies, those of homosexuality and the death penalty, seem less contentious. Certainly few philosophers tend to support the death penalty today despite the evidence of previous centuries in which philosophers did think there were grounds for support for it. Kant, for one, certainly does present arguments in favour of capital punishment though the question of his general position on punishment is a very difficult one to interpret. The argument for capital punishment, though, does indicate a basis for respect for the criminal as a ground for capital punishment, something that would tend, today, to be regarded as counter-intuitive, though this is partly due to the fact that how "respect" is understood in contemporary moral philosophy is not evidently Kantian. The question of homosexuality is one where there are strong grounds presented by some philosophers for notions that do not support the view of treating it in a way that produces outcomes of clear equality for gay people. Whilst the latter is certainly what I would hope would prevail I am less than convinced by the conception that there is a solid philosophical consensus here.

Without getting too far into the discussion of specific issues, however, the question of whether moral philosophers tend to agreement on specific moral issues is not as evident to me as it seems to be to Wedgwood. On the separate question of whether philosophy tends to promote liberalisation I am also not entirely convinced that we can make such a claim in a general way. Set against Wedgwood's point that philosophy promotes criticism is the opposite tendency of philosophy to find reasons for why things are as they are. The latter is also a key focus of philosophy (think here, for example, of Aristotle). So I suppose the weight of how I am thinking here does not tend to support Wedgwood's view.

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