What is the function of morality? On this question, something approaching a consensus has recently emerged. Impressed by developments in evolutionary theory, many philosophers now tell us that the function of morality is to reduce social tensions, and to thereby enable a society to efficiently promote the well-being of its members. In this paper, I subject this consensus to rigorous scrutiny, arguing that the functional hypothesis in question is not well supported. In particular, I attack the supposed evidential relation between (...) an evolutionary genealogy of morals and the functional hypothesis itself. I show that there are a great many functionally relevant discontinuities between our own culture and the culture within which morality allegedly emerged, and I argue that this seriously weakens the inference from morality’s evolutionary history to its present-day function. (shrink)
In this paper, I try to pin down the essence of conservative political theory. I then show that no-one really believes this theory, because all of us embrace progressive values and principles under the right circumstances. This doesn't mean that there aren't such things as conservative political reasons, and I offer an account of such reasons here. But in my view no-one really thinks that such reasons are the sole or even the primary political reasons.
The ethics of biological procreation has received a great deal of attention in recent years. Yet, as I show in this paper, much of what has come to be called procreative ethics is conducted in a strangely abstract, impersonal mode, one which stands little chance of speaking to the practical perspectives of any prospective parent. In short, the field appears to be flirting with a strange sort of practical irrelevance, wherein its verdicts are answers to questions that no-one is asking. (...) I go on to articulate a theory of what I call existential grounding, a notion which explains the role that prospective children play in the lives of many would-be parents. Procreative ethicists who want their work to have real practical relevance must, I claim, start to engage with this markedly first-personal kind of practical consideration. (shrink)
The existence of deep and persistent moral disagreement poses a problem for a defender of moral knowledge. It seems particularly clear that a philosopher who thinks that we know a great many moral truths should explain how human populations have failed to converge on those truths. In this paper, I do two things. First, I show that the problem is more difficult than it is often taken to be, and second, I criticize a popular response, which involves claiming that many (...) false moral beliefs are the product of nonmoral ignorance. (shrink)
In this paper, I argue that in order to explain our own moral reliability, we must provide a theory of error for those who disagree with us. Any story that seeks to vindicate our own reliability must also explain how so many others have gone wrong, otherwise it is not actually a vindicatory story. Thus, we cannot claim to have vindicated our own moral reliability unless we can explain the unreliability of those who hold contrary beliefs. This, I show, requires (...) us to engage directly with cultural history, a topic which has been unfortunately obscured by the meta-ethicist’s near-exclusive focus on evolutionary challenges to moral belief. (shrink)
In this paper, I critically analyze the notion that self-interest distorts moral belief-formation. This belief is widely shared among modern moral epistemologists, and in this paper, I seek to undermine this near consensus. I then offer a principle which can help us to sort cases in which self-interest distorts moral belief from cases in which it does not. As it turns out, we cannot determine whether such distortion has occurred from the armchair; rather, we must inquire into mechanisms of social (...) power and advantage before declaring that some moral position is distorted by self-interest. (shrink)
David Benatar has argued both for anti-natalism and for a certain pessimism about life's meaning. In this paper, I propose that these positions are expressions of a deeply impersonal philosophical temperament. This is not a problem on its own; we all have our philosophical instincts. The problem is that this particular temperament, I argue, leads Benatar astray, since it prevents him from answering a question that any moral philosopher must answer. This is the question of rational authority, which requires the (...) moral philosopher to say why existing human agents have strong practical reasons to comply with the philosopher's dictates. A purely impersonal ethical system can never do this, and this is why Benatar has no answer to this question. (shrink)
Over the years, metaethicists have witnessed the rise of a cottage industry devoted to claiming that expressivist analyses cannot capture some allegedly important feature of moral language. In this paper, I show how Simon Blackburn's pragmatist method enables him to respond decisively to many of these objections. In doing so, I hope to call into question some prevailing assumptions about the linguistic phenomena that a metaethical theory should be expected to capture.
Four decades ago, Bernard Williams accused Kantian moral theory of providing agents with ‘one thought too many’. The general consensus among contemporary Kantians is that this objection has been decisively answered. In this paper, I reconstruct the problem, showing that Williams was not principally concerned with how agents are to think in emergency situations, but rather with how moral theories are to be integrated into recognizably human lives. I show that various Kantian responses to Williams provide inadequate materials for solving (...) this ‘integration problem’, and that they are correspondingly ill-positioned to account for the authority of morality, as Williams suspected all along. (shrink)
In this paper, I clarify and defend a provocative hypothesis offered by Bernard Williams, namely, that modern people are much more likely to speak in terms of master-concepts like “good” or “right,” and correspondingly less likely to think and speak in the pluralistic terms favored by certain Ancient societies. By conducting a close reading of the Platonic dialogues Charmides and Laches, I show that the figure of Socrates plays a key historical role in this conceptual shift. Once we understand that (...) our narrow, reductionist focus on “thin” ethical concepts is a contingent historical development, we are, I claim, in a much better position to evaluate it. (shrink)
A structural harm results from countless apparently innocuous interactions between a great many individuals in a social system, and not from any agent’s intentionally producing the harm. Iris Young has influentially articulated a model of individual moral responsibility for such harms, and several other philosophers have taken it as their starting point for dealing with the phenomenon of structural injustice. In this paper, I argue that this social connection model is far less realistic and socially effective than it aims to (...) be. This is because the model systematically neglects the key role played by the emotions in human moral life. (shrink)