In "The God Delusion", Richard Dawkins asks why it is that, whenever a moral issue is being discussed on a television panel, there always seem to be a man of religion present to represent the side of what is morally permissible. He wants to know why we don't rather have a moral philosopher on the show.

As a simple example, let's say the question on the table is abortion. I can imagine a person of religion being firmly against abortion based on grounds of faith, but I can't, for example, imagine a moral philosopher being either for or against it - I can only imagine the philosopher being able to point out the different views held by different sectors of society, which is obviously helpful towards understanding the issue, but does it resolve it?

So my question is thus: do moral philosophers resolve moral questions, or do they simply help us understand them?

  • Relevant: rationallyspeaking.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/… – Lucas Mar 17 '14 at 10:08
  • You're right. Atheist/agnostic philosophers are short of an all universal ethics upon which to make statements as to the moral value of actions, whereas Theist philosophers/meta-physicians (of the Peripatetic-Neoplatonic tradition for example) can indeed argue as such based on premises they establish in their metaphysics. – infatuated Mar 17 '14 at 11:10
  • @infatuated - I don't think my question has anything to do with theism per se - after all, the basis of theistic morality is just as debatable as any other. I'm wondering whether a philosopher, in his capacity as a philosopher, can and should settle moral questions, or whether his main goal is understanding and enlightenment. – firtydank Mar 17 '14 at 11:21
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    Well, since there was no solid answer to your last question I wanted to point out the conditions which may impact what we may expect from a philosopher of ethics. The fact is if a philosopher has not come up with definite statements as to the roots/nature of good and evil, he may only be expected to present the different views regarding a certain ethical question. But as there are philosophers with definite statements as to the foundations of ethics, they may be able to strongly argue for and against a certain position. – infatuated Mar 17 '14 at 11:36
  • And note that I particularly pointed out theist philosophers not theists in general in my example. Because a theist in general may only argue from Scripture, while a theist philosopher may instead develop logical ethical arguments based on his/her metaphysics. – infatuated Mar 17 '14 at 11:39

My favorite example of a moral philosopher helping resolve--or at least helping to clarify the discourse on--an issue of morality is Peter Singer's involvement in animal rights.

He makes a strong (though not inarguable) case for treating animals with much more compassion than we typically do, but without referring to any deities. So it's certainly possible to reach at least the same level of resolution as one gets from including a religious leader.


So my question is thus: do moral philosophers resolve moral questions, or do they simply help us understand them?

I believe there’s not a definite answer to the question. A philosopher of ethics may only help us to understand a question or problem of ethics, or he/she may argue for a specific position on moral right or wrong.

But I think one major deficiency of modern discourse on ethics as practiced by agnostic/atheist philosophers is a common failure (or fundamental inability) to argue for a universal basis for ethics. I believe that’s a direct consequence of an atheistic/agnostic view of the universe which is void of (or explicitly rejects) a supreme extra-human principle, truth or purpose against which to moderate or regulate human natural selfishness which is a highly problematic issue in all atheist discourses on ethics. This ontological deficit I believe is why atheist philosophers are usually (and in my opinion destined to) get caught up in desperate attempts at bringing human natural tendency to self-interest in line with the kind of self-less decisions that underpin public/collective good. Thus they can at best be expected to only discuss and examine different views on ethics often without an ability to make a final definite judgment.

But, in contrast, philosophers with an ontological/metaphysical approach to ethics are more likely to argue for or against a certain position in an ethical debate. The examples of the latter are theists who argue from presumed divine infallibility of a religion (though they may not necessarily be able to logically reason for their positions especially for a non-believer who doesn’t recognize the authority of scripture); or they may be metaphysicians/theist philosophers who make definite statements on ethical behaviour based on logically reasoned notions of supreme truth(s) or principle(s) that, when adopted with conviction, can be shown to effectively moderate/regulate the human tendency to self-interest as the main theoretical and practical impediment to both ethical theory and conduct.

A prominent example of philosophers with a metaphysical approach to ethics is Plotinus whose ethics is underpinned by his highly compelling theory on the nature evil and goodness, where evil is equated to matter and evil behavior is subsequently traced back to a desire for or attraction to material forms rather than the intellectual forms -- which emanate from the One --, or the One itself which is the first self-caused cause of everything and every goodness. His thoughts are also effectively used by theist scholars to explain religious ethics as his metaphysics substantially conform to the religious worldview. For a summary of Plotinus's philosophy see: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plotinus

  • Why do you say that atheistic moral principles must be non-universal? What about Sam Harris's "The Moral Landscape", for example, where he argues for moral choices that are empirically and rationally shown to improve human well being? – firtydank Mar 18 '14 at 7:59
  • Hmmm, theoretically speaking atheists may indeed formulate individual moral principles with arguably universal validity, but being empirically minded they are practically incapable of working out a unified consistent foundation (preferably metaphysical) from which to infer moral principles governing/guiding our daily life decisions. Because empirical method requires extensive examination of numerous (if not infinite) possible human choices within numerous (if not infinite) different possible contexts which is a practical impossibility... – infatuated Mar 18 '14 at 8:18
  • But with a universal metaphysics determining the ultimate purpose of life, the moral value of individual life decisions can be understood as simply either serving the purpose or undermining it. Another disadvantage of atheist morality is that it is unable to produce the kind of emotional conviction that guarantees heartfelt moral commitment. – infatuated Mar 18 '14 at 8:19
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    @FranS - You can't do it the way Sam Harris suggests (which, as far as I can tell, is "let's give really blatantly obvious examples and dismiss all the tricky but real questions as details"). The problem is that his metric is wrong--if you take "improve human well being" as your goal, you necessarily run into questions about to what extent you can make some people unwell to make others more well, and whether it matters if the other people are alive now or are hypothetical future people. But there's no intrinsic reason you can't do it; you just need a measure that applies to all humanity. – Rex Kerr Mar 21 '14 at 23:16
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    @infatuated - I agree both that this is a topic worthy of lengthy debate, and that a theist philosopher should proceed as you describe. I have seen a few attempts, but none very convincing. (Then again, I have not seen any very convincing accounts of universal morality from non-theist philosophers either. Universal morality is not an easy thing for anyone, it seems.) – Rex Kerr Mar 22 '14 at 6:37

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