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Made in the Shade: Moral Compatibilism and the Aims of Moral Theory

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Peter Railton*
University of Michigan
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The general facts about human needs and abilities are perhaps clear enough and I shall assume that commonsense knowledge suffices for our purposes here.

John Rawls

Theorizing is a distinctive activity. Within almost any discipline, for example, one finds a recognized distinction between theorists and nontheorists, theoretical work and non-theoretical work. To be sure, the distinction is often a matter of degree. Typically, theorists are identified by their commitment to developing an understanding of their subject matter that possesses certain characteristic features- they aim for generality, comprehensiveness, coherence, well-foundedness, and explanatoriness. They aim to formulate and justify systematic representational systems.

Theorizing is not to be confused with reflection, which can be more or less lacking in theoretical ambition. Nor is theorizing to be confused with criticism, which can be piecemeal. Theorizing is a form of reflection, and it can be critical, but theories can be vindicatory, even apologetic.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 1995

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1 A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1971) 425.

2 This quip is attributed to Sidney Morgenbesser.

3 These categories are introduced with the hope that they will facilitate exposition. They are not meant to be exhaustive or mutually exclusive.

4 Quite a variety of normative moral theories seem possible, including pluralistic theories of prima facie duties, virtue theories, and so on. What seems to me most distinctive about normative moral theories, as opposed to mere collections of normative moral judgments, is not the degree of simplification or the insistence upon something like a decision procedure, but rather the effort to achieve coherence and articulate some sort of structure.

5 It seems to me that the notion of a funding theory is close to Scanlon's, T.M. notion of a ‘philosophical theory,’ as found in his “Contractualism and Utilitarianism,“ in Sen, A. and Williams, B. eds., Utilitarianism and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1982) 106f.Google Scholar

Bernard Williams, in an influential discussion of ethical theory, divides things up differently. On his account: “An ethical theory is a theoretical account of what ethical thought and practice are, which account either implies a general test of the correctness of basic ethical beliefs and principles or else implies that there cannot be such a test.” Up to the comma, I would say, Williams could be describing the general aim of a funding theory. After the comma, however, Williams adds a quite special condition, which implies that a funding theory that allowed for a plurality of ‘tests of correctness’ would not (for Williams, ) constitute an ‘ethical theory.’ See his Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985) 72.Google Scholar

‘Funding theory’ is a more catholic category than ‘metaethics,’ at least as the latter term has been understood in recent years. For it need not present its central theses in the form of theories of the meaning of moral terms; nor need it carry the assumption that the theories developed will always be analytic, arrived at a priori, or that the theories will be devoid of substantive moral content ('neutral’). If we could remove these associations from the term- for indeed they are no more than associations - then ‘metaethics’ would serve admirably in place of the cumbersome ‘funding theory for morality.’

Finally, a funding theory need not be realist in ambition. Antirealists and irrealists are often at pains to show that their accounts show moral thought and practice to be in good order.

6 See Nagel, ThomasEthics as an Autonomous Theoretical Subject,” in Stent, Gunther ed., Morality as a Biological Phenomenon (Berkeley: University of California Press 1978)Google Scholar. I do not claim to be explicating Nagel's view, but I hope that he would find he has some sympathies with the ‘autonomist’ position represented herein.

7 See Moore, G.E.Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1903)Google Scholar.

8 Stevenson went on to give a substantive explanation of this claim about the limits of scientific method: the non-cognitive character of moral judgments. See Stevenson, C.L.The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms,Mind 46 (1937) 1431, esp. 16-17CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Harman, GilbertThe Nature of Morality (New York: Oxford University Press 1977) ch. 1Google Scholar.

10 The classic discussion of reflective equilibrium is to be found in Rawls, JohnA Theory of Justice, esp. sees. 9 and 87Google Scholar.

11 For an influential early discussion of the distinction between narrow and broad (what he calls ‘wide’) reflective equilibrium, see Daniels, NormanWide Reflective Equilibrium and Theory Acceptance in Ethics,Journal of Philosophy 76 (1979) 256-82CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 this point is made by copp, davidexplanation and justification in ethics,ethics 100 (1990) 237-58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

13 On the academic side, see the special issue, “Ethical Theory: Character and Virtue,“ of Midwest Studies in Philosophy 13 (1988) and also Slote, MichaelFrom Morality to Virtue (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1992)Google Scholar.

14 See the discussion of the classic experiments of Newcombe on extroversion and Hartshorne and May on honesty, as well as the more recent controversy over Mischel's claims about cross-situational consistency, found in Ross, L. and Nisbett, R.The Person and the Situation (Philadelphia: Temple University Press 1991) ch. 4Google Scholar.

15 For discussion of the ‘representativeness heuristic,’ the ‘fundamental attribution error,’ and the asymmetries between positive and negative evidence, see Nisbett, R. and Ross, L.Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgment (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall 1980).Google Scholar

16 See for example Sturgeon's, Nicholas well-known discussion of Hitler and of Passed Midshipman Woodworth in his “Moral Explanations,” in Copp, David and Zimmerman, David eds., Morality, Reason, and Truth (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld 1985).Google Scholar

17 Not all explanations are causal. Rationalists in general need to avail themselves of a notion of explanation in which a non-causal, underlying rational order can explain the realm of (causal) appearances. (Compare here Leibniz's notion of'wellfounded phenomena.’) But rationalism aside, even in contemporary natural science, many explanations are not evidently causal in nature- e.g., explanation by reduction, by reference to the structure of space-time, by ‘least energy' principles, and so on. Recent formulations of the doctrine of ‘inference to the best explanation,’ it should also be noted, do not assume that all explanations are causal. Mathematical explanations, for example, need not be. See Harman, G.The Inference to the Best Explanation,The Philosophical Review 74 (1965) 88-95CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 There are, of course, many versions of supervenience. It is widely held that the supervenience of the moral upon the natural is (what has been called) strong supervenience.

19 Moore, G.E.A Reply to My Critics,” in Schilpp, P.A. ed., The Philosophy of G.E. Moore, vol. 2 (La Salle, IL: Open Court 1942) 588Google Scholar.

20 David Hume, “Of the Original Contract,” Essays Moral, Political, and Literary. The passage quoted here can be found on p. 60 of the selected volume of Hume's, Political Essays, Hendel, C.W. ed. (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill 1953).Google Scholar

21 A number of people have tried to improve my thinking about moral theory and its appropriateness. I am especially grateful to Paul Boghossian, Stephen Darwall, Ronald Dworkin, Allan Gibbard, Thomas Nagel, and Samuel Scheffler.

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