On discovering that I study philosophy, scientists (or people who think of themselves as having scientific leanings) often ask passive-aggressive questions about philosophy’s progress. “If science can tell us the age of the universe and give us a pretty good idea of how species evolved on earth, why can’t philosophy come up with answers to its most fundamental questions?”
While I don’t think these questions are particularly fair, every philosopher wonders sometimes if there’s something to the objection, and it’s particularly true in the area of moral philosophy. To be blunt, ethical debates often feel like a waste of time.
How often do people who disagree on some important moral issue change their minds as a result of reasoned discussion? How often have you changed your mind? The same pattern holds in academic philosophy: whether it’s property rights or abortion, you’ll find thoughtful people on each side of most questions.
So why are moral debates so interminable? The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre proposes a bold answer. He builds on the Oxford philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe’s insight that the moral language we use was developed in the context of certain frameworks: systems of virtue ethics devised by Aristotle, which revolve around the idea of an objective ‘good human life’, and Abrahamic systems of divine law. But MacIntyre argues that a series of developments in the history of philosophy have rendered our moral words incoherent.
The idea of ‘good’ used in Aristotelian ethics is not particularly mysterious: it just refers to ‘good as the kind of thing you are’. A good knife is a sharp one, and a good tree is one with deep roots and sturdy branches. A good human is more complicated, but it’s fundamentally about the same kind of thing: figuring out what kind of being ‘the human’ is, what our distinctive capacities and abilities are, and then discussing what the best way is to realise them.
As for the religious systems, the idea of ‘the right’ in these is simply by what is commanded by God.
As both of these ideas are increasingly rejected in the Western world, our moral language become more and more incoherent. David Hume and Immanuel Kant rejected the idea that nature could provide answers to moral questions. And as Christianity declined in influence – first among the intellectual classes and then elsewhere – the idea of divine law naturally went with it.
But we couldn’t do without our moral words: so ‘good’ came to mean ‘maximised pleasure’ or ‘a fundamental, unanalysable property’ or ‘something that every rational being would choose’ or something else entirely.
We think we have some shared, underlying content about what ‘good’ means, but we don’t. People don’t just disagree about what moral positions are rational to hold: they even disagree about the rules that determine what counts as rationality. We belong to what MacIntyre calls different moral traditions, and we don’t even notice it.
MacIntyre thinks that makes us ‘emotivists’ about morality. Emotivism as a theory holds that while moral statements look like they’re describing facts (‘murder is wrong’) they’re really an expression of some feeling or attitude (“boo to murder!”)
Now, MacIntyre doesn’t think that emotivism is true, but he thinks it describes how we actually use moral language most of the time: we don’t share a common framework of what morality is, and so all we can do is signal our approval and disapproval of things. And that’s what explains why so many moral arguments go nowhere. If I say “boo” to something and you say “yay” to it, there’s just nothing to argue about.
Does this all end up with moral relativism? No – MacIntyre doesn’t claim that traditions cannot talk to each other, or that one is as good as another. But if the problem is ‘deeply bedded in confusions that are centuries old’ or ‘fundamental divisions in philosophy’, is there anything that can be done at a pace faster than geological time? While never easy, there are strategies for making meaningful moral communication more likely. One comes from Leah Libresco, a writer I admire.
As a well-known atheist who converted to Catholicism, Libresco knows something about communicating between traditions, and one of her tips for having more productive disagreements is to get to their root as quickly as possible.
There’s very little point in having a debate about gay marriage if you and your conversation partner have completely different views of what marriage is and why it matters. Arguments about tax policy are a waste of breath if you don’t agree on whether the economic system is supposed to maximise individual freedom or serve the common good.
Dig down to the foundations and figure out where you actually disagree: then dig down further and see if you can find some common foundations to build back up from. There’s (almost) always something. Discussions are much more likely to be useful, productive and meaningful – you might even make some progress.