Method in Ethical Theory

Method in Ethical Theory

Method in Ethical Theory

Method in Ethical Theory

Excerpt

Readers of traditional treatises on ethical theory sometimes find the writers looking upon their disagreements as a kind of intellectual game, on the assumption that men agree about what is right and wrong but disagree only on the reasons. On such a view, morality is secure, speculation on it more precarious. At times it has required the bravado of a Nietzsche to penetrate such smugness with the assertion that his aim was to overthrow traditional morality. The contemporary world, since 1914, or at latest since 1933, has known better. It has seen the widest range of conflicts. Some have been practical conflicts, some have been the battle of moral feeling against sheer cruelty and inhumanity. But many have been serious differences about the form that morality itself should take. There is no gainsaying the fact that much of traditional morality has been called into question, whether in outright disagreement, or in the more subtle form of questioning its significance or wondering about its credentials.

If the search for dependable answers on the moral level today increasingly seeks theoretical assistance on the philosophical level, we must not underestimate the difficulties in this fresh arena. There is, it is true, considerable production of works in theoretical ethics, but the reader is likely to be impressed by the extent of controversy and disagreement. He may even despair, thinking of the vast problems that so urgently need the kind of aid that systematic theory might give. But such despair is premature. The situation in morals is like that in medicine. You do not stop treating the sick just because there is controversy about basic concepts and underlying theories, even about individual diagnoses. You do your best and keep going. Sometimes you succeed without knowing quite why. Sometimes your experience helps illuminate the theoretical issues. You know that theory is concerned with the frontier, and if it has its own problems and controversies, the only remedy is to push on.

Such is the state in ethical theorizing today. It is pushing on. Certainly, it is giving much less assistance to morality than might . . .

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