The Contradictions of Modern Moral Philosophy: Ethics after Wittgenstein

The Contradictions of Modern Moral Philosophy: Ethics after Wittgenstein

The Contradictions of Modern Moral Philosophy: Ethics after Wittgenstein

The Contradictions of Modern Moral Philosophy: Ethics after Wittgenstein

Synopsis

The Contradictions of Modern Moral Philosophy is a highly original and radical critique of contemporary moral theory. Paul Johnston demonstrates that much recent moral philosophy is confused about the fundamental issue of whether there are correct moral judgements. He shows that the standard modern approaches to ethics cannot justify - or even make much sense of - traditional moral beliefs. Applied rigorously, these approaches suggest that we should reject ethics as a set of outdated and misguided claims.Rather than facing up to this conclusion, most recent moral philosophy consists of attempts to find some ways of preserving moral beliefs. This places a contradiction at the heart of moral philosophy. As a resilt it is often impossible to tell whether a contemporary philosopher ultimately rejects or endorses the idea of objective right and wrong.On the basis of a Wittgenstein approach Paul Johnston puts forward an alternative account of ethics that avoids this contradiction and recognises that the central issues of ethics cannot be resolved by conceptual analysis. He then uses this account to highlight the contradictions of important contemporary moral theorists such as Bernard Williams, Alasdair MacIntyre, Thomas Nagel and Charles Taylor.

Excerpt

This book is a critique of modern moral philosophy. It seeks to throw light on what is involved in believing in right and wrong and in so doing suggests that most contemporary accounts of ethics are deeply confused. Not only are the philosophers who put forward these accounts uncertain whether their role is to clarify or to contribute to moral debate, they are not even sure where they stand in relation to ethics itself. On the crucial question of whether there are correct ways of acting (and correct judgements on human action) modern philosophers want to have it both ways. They reject the claim to correctness that is the distinguishing feature of moral judgements, but nonetheless want to continue making judgements of this kind. This contradiction arises from a combination of conceptual confusion and genuine ambivalence. On the one hand, it reflects a failure to understand ethics and, on the other, real doubts about the validity of moral claims. The peculiar consequence of this is that it is often hard to tell whether modern moral philosophers do or do not believe in right and wrong.

In recent years dissatisfaction with the interminable debates about moral concepts (reinforced by a desire to show the relevance and practicality of philosophy) has encouraged some philosophers to turn away from these issues and concentrate instead on advancing substantive moral claims. But this strategy, too, has its drawbacks. One is that, until the confusions about the nature of moral concepts are cleared up, these will continue to obstruct and distort moral debate, and it seems odd to suggest that philosophy should ignore this. Another difficulty relates to the status of the views a philosopher might advance, for what basis can she claim for them qua philosopher? Is she claiming that conceptual analysis can establish and/or refute moral views? If so, she needs to justify this claim and if not, she needs to explain the basis of her contribution to the debate. As these comments suggest, there is no avoiding the task of clarifying moral concepts. Philosophy’s record in this area may not be impressive, but it is a necessary and important philosophical task.

The way this book approaches this task is unfashionable in several ways. One is that it accepts Ludwig Wittgenstein’s claims about the nature of

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