This post is semi-inspired by a brief discussion elsewhere.
It was suggested that, given the controversial nature of ethical theories, it is more reasonable to view them as expressions (or ad hoc justifications, I suppose) of subjective preferences until we can get a definitive, uncontroversial resolution.
Now, this view has ramifications for philosophy in general, since it is the case that there are no “philosophical” problems that have ever been definitively resolved. There are individuals and groups who consider certain books to be closed, but no universal agreements across the board. Even old warhorses like Knowledge as Justified True Belief come under fire from time to time. So, generalizing from the above statement, it would seem that the entire discipline of philosophy would have to be considered as various subjective preferences in dialogue with each other. That may be a salutary view for those who would like for the social/natural sciences to finally “close the gap” over philosophy, but anathema to someone like myself.
But the question is worth asking: is it reasonable to view something controversial as valid? My knee-jerk response is that, as long as I have what seems to me to be compelling reasons for believing in X, the fact that other rational people reject those reasons is interesting, but it doesn’t directly impact me. What does are arguments or evidence against X.
What I think of as perhaps the biggest mistake in the history of philosophy is the shift to viewing epistemology as first philosophy ala Descartes – we need to clear away all knowledge and find what will be a definitive foundation accessible to any particular consciousness: only then can we go on to evaluate the problems of philosophy. What follows from this is usually one of the following: you either cheat your way out through bizarre leaps in logic (Descartes), fall prey to scepticism (Hume), or just radically redefine what concepts like “knowledge” and “objectivity” mean (Kant). All of these are – to me – bad ends, and if this is the extent of the philosophical enterprise, then I can easily see one moving in the direction of Nietzsche, or Wittgenstein, or the logical positivists. Although the postmodern crowd is sometimes framed in terms of rejecting Cartesian foundationalism, they are in many ways its ultimate legacy.
The approach I find more congenial, on the other hand, is the older one exemplified by Plato and Aristotle: we can take a lot of our knowledge about the world as given. It is just that we start out holding it in an unreflective fashion, and have yet to systematically think them through. We may find, upon examination, that a particular belief x is actually untenable and needs to be rejected in favor of y, or that, upon careful examination, reality turns out to be different than it appears to be. But we do not begin by retreating into the mind, as if the perciever were somehow standing outside of the world and grasping at it with its perceptions, rather than being a creature in the world.
Regardless of whether or not we believe moral propositions have cognitive content, it is the case that morality is a phenomenon in the world – one that we experience from the inside. We have experiences of a conscience, rationally deliberate between decisions on the grounds of what we perceive to be right or wrong, etc. Our moral sensibility and ability, like an affinity and talent for music, is developed primarily in a hands-on fashion; theorizing can only come after some experience, since otherwise the theorist would not have developed the faculties for being able to correctly perceive the phenomenon she is trying to describe. So trying to bracket off all experience to construct an a priori foundation for ethics (such as Kant’s categorical imperative) is to deliberately place oneself in an epistemically deficient position.
Now, one practices music in order to become, well, a musical person. But the final shape of that is determined to some extent by the discipline one is in: a jazz and a classical musician will share more things in common than not, but there will be many divergences. Similarly with morals: there is, as C.S. Lewis put it, a notion of the tao, or the Way, or the Good life, that traditional cultures have. There are, I would argue, more commonalities than differences (and part of this seems to have to do with the fact that all moralities have to harmonize with human nature to at least some extent; a society that consistently practiced anti-natalism, for example, could not exist), but also important divergences.
So – and it’s here that my indebtedness to Alastair MacIntyre is showing the most – I cannot just view myself as pursuing the Good abstractly. Rather, I need to ask myself, “I need to become a good what? A good Athenian? A good Neoplatonist? A good Christian? etc. I can only concretely understand what I need to be in light of the narratives that shape me. That will give the ultimate significance to my practicing of the virtues, by giving them a definite telos that they point towards.
Our modern individualist ethos typically rejects the notion of allowing oneself to be defined by a narrative as an unnecessary limitation on our autonomy. But, if the view I outlined is correct, the attempt to develop an ethic outside of one is bound to fail in some fashion. Many people have strong moral opinions, but they often don’t have a good rationale, or are just plain inconsistent, because they have been ripped from the narratives that would make them intelligible. MacIntyre’s famous allusion to the situation where we have the language and practices of a particular natural science, but none of the theory, is particularly apt. And, given the fruits of late capitalism, it is often the case that, absent such a narrative, banality rushes in to fill the gaps.
It could be said that, given the plurality of narratives, this position must also lead to a sort of relativism. But my point is that I reject the epistemic position which would make controversy like this a serious problem in the first place. The narrative I find myself in makes sense to me. If someone asks, “well why not x or y or z instead?” my answer is likely to be, “what are your arguments in favor of x or y or z?”