Professors & Public Ethics: Studies of Northern Moral Philosophers before the Civil War

Professors & Public Ethics: Studies of Northern Moral Philosophers before the Civil War

Professors & Public Ethics: Studies of Northern Moral Philosophers before the Civil War

Professors & Public Ethics: Studies of Northern Moral Philosophers before the Civil War

Excerpt

FOR THESE studies that ask whether moral philosophy as a formal body of thought was bent to the needs of public experience, the moral philosophy textbooks are another starting point.

Although moral philosophy as academic ethics was a treatment of worldly affairs, much of it was set to operate within a fixed firmament. It described a universe of moral laws in which the uncertainties of life could be met with theologically satisfying preconceptions and fixed plans of action. In turning from the orderly presentation of the world in the textbooks to the problematical world of public life, the moral philosopher, remembering his own theological sentiments as well as the religious sympathies of his community or section, was faced not so much with having to reject apriorities and plans of action as having to choose among them. Which Biblical interpretation of slavery? Conscience Whiggery or righteous Cotton Whiggery? Righteous war with Mexico or determined pacifism? Militant Protestantism through Know-Nothingism or Christian tolerance?

To ask such questions then and to arrive at almost as many different answers as there were denominations was not to indicate that, despite the textbooks of ethics, there were no common ethical assumptions among these moral philosophers. Their applications of religious postulates to public problems may have produced different solutions, but it did not prevent their using the same intellectual . . .

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