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Putting your Philosophical House in Order

by Roger Crisp

For some, the end-of-year holiday offers a little time for relaxation, and perhaps also some general reflection independent of the particular issues one has been thinking about over the year. I’d like to recommend starting with the concepts you use, both to frame ethical questions, and to answer them.

We have a huge number of broadly normative or ethical concepts, arising from various evolutionary, historical, and cultural contingencies. At least some of them we probably don’t need to use (though we should remember them and be ready to ‘mention’ them if, for example, thinking about history). One obvious example others have suggested is ‘chastity’. But there may be others. Consider, for example, the notion of ‘rights’, which is a relatively young concept compared to ‘duty’ (merely hundreds of years old, rather than thousands). If you unpack the concept of a right, you’re almost certain to make reference to certain duties correlating with various rights. So – in philosophy, at least – why not restrict yourself to duties alone?

Philosophy is a rational, and hence a fundamentally general and universal, enterprise. When you think about a particular question – such as, say, whether doctors, in the case of certain interventions, should seek consent from patients – you might end up holding the principle that doctors should indeed seek consent. But presumably you wouldn’t wish to restrict the principle to doctors. Perhaps opticians also have to seek consent in some cases. What you will recognize is a general principle that, other things equal, one should not interfere with others without their agreement – or, as some might prefer, that one should respect the autonomy, privacy, or integrity of others (one of these concepts should be enough, and it will itself require some elucidation).

But we might start tidying up our concepts at an even more fundamental level, asking what is the fundamental question we are asking in philosophy (at least, practical philosophy). My suggestion for that question is: ‘how should one act?’. That question itself requires some unpacking, and, following Bernard Williams, I’d recommend: ‘what reasons does one have to act?’.

When you start answering that question ab initio, you might then introduce principles you are already inclined to accept, making sure that they are as clear, precise, and parsimonious as possible. Take the duty not to violate the autonomy of others. Do you really need the notion of ‘duty’ as well as ‘reason’? If you can say everything you want without it, then put that aside, along with ‘rights’. What matters about the violation of others’ autonomy? If you think, after serious reflection, that there just is an ultimate, non-derivative reason against doing that, then your principle can stand. But if you incline to the view that the violation of autonomy is objectionable only in so far as it harms others, then use the notion of ‘harm’ instead, as more general and more fundamental: ‘One has a reason not to harm others’.

Once you’ve carried out this procedure as far it can go, you will have a set of what W.D. Ross called ‘prima facie duties’ (by which, as many have pointed out, he meant ‘reasons’; my recommended holiday reading here would be the second chapter of Ross’s The Right and the Good, which though nearly a century old remains as insightful and relevant as ever). You will then be well set up to re-enter the philosophical fray after the vacation. The issues that philosophers discuss are important, urgent, and deeply interesting. And philosophers love arguing. But before you invite others in to debate with you, it’s a good idea to make sure your philosophical house is in order. If you don’t, the conversation may not be as productive as you’d hoped.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. The reference to the book by Ross was a particularly useful one for myself because of the phrases and ideas used by the writer which allowed a swift comprehension of the written word due to a recognized commonality in previously constructed thought processes. A situation which if uncritically accepted across time can be as potentially dangerous as unconsciously accepting particular abbreviations, words or phrases.

    A couple of quick observations:-

    It does seem from the chapter referenced that Ross is illuminating the differences between science and philosophy also documented by many other writers, and by Baldwin in the 1901 edition o f the Dictionary of philosophy and psychology;. Vol. 1 “If there is a dispute about the function of philosophy, it arises, we take it, through two main ways of regarding the problem of philosophy : of which the one makes philosophy a rethinking and deeper formulating of the results safely come to by science ; and of which the other makes philosophy the criticism in Herbart’s phrase, the rectification of the conceptions upon which science proceeds, and upon which, with all its values and interests, rests life no less than knowledge. The one assumes knowledge, and aims to systematize it ; the other criticizes knowledge, and aims to idealize it. The one begins with facts, with things as they are, and aims to understand them so thoroughly that one insight will cover them all ; the other lays claim to the insight, the ideal, the universal, and says : Whatever things may seem to be for science and for experience, this is what, for good and all, they really are and mean.”
    That opinion seems equally applicable to the purely scientific approach to ethics and the philosophical approach to morality. It has to be said that both books clearly present the blind prejudices of their age as givens.

    Secondly Ross identifies and makes use of the word right, as many of us do, in different but interchangeable contexts, referring to right as something which is correct, and right as an entitlement. He also gives the opinion that rights probably came into existence with laws. I am not convinced by that argument, as right conduct, and being right (as in correct) appear together as being conceptually used by man in Magdalenian period communications , provided those concepts were differentiated by privacy mechanisms in the message delivered to different people or a different times. (Official dating sources provided that approximate date) The deployment of emotions by the communicator(s) at that time could indicate a shamanic type of influence at play or a moral lesson being taught. If they had been communicating laws I suspect they would have been more clearly stated for everybody to immediately see.

    Many years ago using a poetic sestina, in an attempt to clarify an understanding of the dichotomy between science (logic) and philosophy, together with their relation to language (and a singular defined use of language in thought) I set myself a challenge to use logic in creating a sestina of six, six line verses with each of the six lines of the six verses using the same six words organized in different ways but each line/verse having a tangible emotive meaning. The basis of the challenge was with six words to create an emotion or emotions (preferably love or happiness) throughout the sestina. As this developed, to make the contrast most visible (and because it was too simple to mask the outcome by reversing verses to create an emotional build up), the first verse had to retain the most pleasurable of the emotions created. An additional element attempted was to utilise words which had six meanings within one or more dictionaries and represent the sequentiality of the listed meanings within the verses. An appreciation grew out of that of how the contrast and conflict between logic and philosophy within language arises together with how individual frailties may affect communications.
    And to illustrate the importance of retaining all sides of any logical or representational device the Antikythera mechanism seems a perfect example. There the valuable logical skills used in constructing that mechanism were discarded for many hundreds of years, the cause of that ‘deliberate loss?’ it seems is open to speculation. Retaining logic and ideas can become as important as the veneer of humanity, where any logic must contextually be deployed for the good of humanity as a whole. But that frequently degenerates into ‘as determined at the time’. This last observation deliberately focuses on the obvious anthrocentric issues contained in chapter two of Ross’ book by ignoring other facets mentioned, which appear more as the shadows of heat do in the hot sun, and which in this age, for many modern races, have become mirages materializing over the horizon bringing about some cognition of the real existence of broader/deeper moral/ethical obligations.)

    Has the basis of morality altered, probably not much although it may be broadening; Have the ethics changed, certainly yes. Is that because the shapes of the heat shadows have become more definitively measurable in some areas, that generally people are more sensitive/pliable, or that the environment is bringing about change?
    Irrespective of motivation or any emotional manipulation the answer to that question appears important for ethics, morality and philosophy, probably because a shift of focus of where the greater good resides, has in the past been a source of major problems, yet those outcomes are merely seen as new opportunities from many fixed perspectives.

    So, thank you for a reference which stirred some free thoughts.

  2. Thanks, Ian. Glad the Ross was of some interest. I agree with you that his set of ethical principles was pretty much in line with the morality of his time, but, like Aristotle, he certainly thought hard about whether that morality was correct or not. Whether we can ever reach a truly objective point of view in our reflections, of course, is another matter, perhaps to be handed quickly on to scholars of Hegel!

  3. Yes, sadly analysis ends when it receives a tick; and seemingly objectivity wanes as emotional attachment forms for a particular form of idea(s) and rhetorical support is given precedence, but the real success of any idea only appears when it is sufficiently broadly based to support itself (a form of rightness in its time and place?). Otherwise only focused groups accept it as representative of them, where it may even become similar to a religious dogma for those groups.

    If the analytic approach is reaching the end of its most useful life, as some current indications apparently reveal, the long debated differences with Hegels’ philosophy would probably create too much resistance for a simple adaptation, and any more dramatic alteration could potentially cause a loss of many useful analytic tools and thought, which is something equally likely if many experts are right, as logic rapidly improves beyond current boundaries with the developing technologies. Whilst the type of rhetorical devices being deployed nowadays, if practised correctly do serve to declare/prove group membership(s) and speak to different ideas at the same time they can be transparent and do little to effectively gradually expose (or protect) groups or their ideas from too rapid logical developments resulting in the normal dangers; In those circumstances good and right oddly seem generally to become irrelevant. By the way, thank you for raising Hegel, his Philosophy of Right has been on my reading list for some years, and have now downloaded an early english version so will eventually read it, but others still come first.

    Somebody once wrote ‘practice in the use of the rule also shows that is a mistake in its employment.’ perhaps they were innately recognizing the dangers behind the rhetorical support of what have become comfortably familiar words and ideas.

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