Monday, May 12, 2008

Why Moral Philosophers Can't Provide Answers

At least since Plato, many philosophers have pretended to have some sort of insight that makes them best placed to answer moral questions. Today, most take the more modest line that they can't really provide answers. The purpose of philosophy seems to be conceptual clarification and making distinctions. Thus we can, for example, isolate potential differences between (say) killing and letting die, and thereby clarify exactly what is at stake in a question. This may lead us to reject certain bad reasoning, but when it comes to deciding substantive issues philosophers are no more better than the proverbial man in the street.

There was a fine example after today's moral philosophy seminar. A visiting economist wanted to ask the five moral philosophers round the table whether one should tell a married friend that his wife is cheating on him. (I believe the example was fictitious). Assume all the normal caveats, about how the cuckold is unaware and will never find out. What should you do?

It seems that he genuinely wanted an answer to the practical question but, as philosophers of the modern/modest sort, we were reluctant to give one. By the time it reached my turn, we'd quibbled with what was being asked so much that all I committed myself to was 'I think being an unknowing cuckold makes his life in one way worse - though not necessarily worse all-things-considered - and this gives you a pro tanto reason to tell him'.

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At 2:10 pm, Blogger Rob Jubb said...

The example's not thickly specified enough. I would trust a moral philosopher to give good advice to someone they knew about a moral dilemma concerning other people they also knew. How on earth anyone is supposed to know what to do in a case where someone is being cuckolded, and will never know or have any inkling of it, which is a) totally unrealistic and b) blank as far as all kinds of relevant considerations - how long they've been married; how devoted they are to each other; whether the cuckold is also cuckolding; both parties' temperament - I do not know.


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