Ethics and the Moral Life

Ethics and the Moral Life

Ethics and the Moral Life

Ethics and the Moral Life

Excerpt

Books on moral philosophy, I shall argue, are not written in order to help people to live better lives. What are they for, then? They are written by people who are trying to get clear to themselves, and to make clear to others, what morality is. But this is, on the face of it, paradoxical. For in a sense we all know what morality is. Morality, more than anything else in human life, is something we just cannot get away from. We are not all scientists, few of us are artists, many of us have no religion. But all of us have to deal, at one time and another, with the problem of moral decision. We have to be able to answer questions of the form 'What ought I to do?' And if moral philosophy does not claim to answer questions of that sort, what does it claim to tell us?

It is a peculiarity of philosophy that this very question -- what does it tell us? -- is itself obscure. Let us make a few distinctions. The moralist claims to tell us what we ought to do; that is, to answer questions of the form 'What ought I to do?'; and his task is complete when he has given answers to all questions of that sort which people have actually raised or are likely to raise. The practitioner of descriptive ethics claims to tell us what people's moral views are; that is, to answer questions of the form 'What do people in society S think about suicide?'; and his task is complete when he has given a list of all the moral principles which are held at a particular time in a particular community, in so far as they can be formulated. But the practitioner of philosophical ethics -- the moral philosopher -- has a different task from either of these; and his task is never complete. A book of philosophy has no beginning and no end; the writer cannot . . .

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