Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Aristotle in the Ethics Wars

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

Aristotle in the Ethics Wars

Article excerpt

La docte Antiquite dans toute sa duree A l'egal de nos jours ne fut point eclairee.

Charles Perrault, Le siecle de Louis le Grand

ARISTOTLE'S ETHICAL VIEWS HAVE played a starring role in contemporary debates. Among those struggling to unseat the prevailing subjectivism or noncognitivism of twentieth-century ethics, some prominent figures have turned to the history of philosophy to understand better the emergence of the metaphysical picture thought to undergird this prevalence. The intellectual dominance and respectability of the modern sciences is sometimes credited with casting doubt on the status of truth-claims in ethics, since the latter seem to lack comparable truth-makers, methods of verification, or patterns of convergence. Many ethicists today accept the force of arguments based on the so-called is-ought gap or, following J. L. Mackie, the "argument from queerness." (1) Ethical statements are treated as fundamentally different in kind from statements about the natural world. Not only this, but their status as truth-apt is thought to suffer by comparison. Ethical claims are variously reinterpreted by noncognitivists as reflecting commitments, desires, or feelings of the participants, rather than as literal truth-claims.

Yet, in the latter half of the twentieth century, some prominent ethicists have challenged this picture and urged the strength of Aristotle's outlook as a potent alternative. The challenges at issue are those that question the status of the very worldview that has given rise to noncognitivism. A number of major ethical works can be seen as implicitly responding to Anscombe's "Modern Moral Philosophy" (1958). These include MacIntyre's After Virtue (1981), Williams's Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985), McDowell's "Two Sorts of Naturalism" (1996), Korsgaard's The Sources of Normativity (1996), and Foot's Natural Goodness (2001). (2) These challengers have quite different projects, and echo different features of Anscombe's original article. But they are alike in that they offer competing historical narratives, aimed at challenging contemporary noncognitivism. All consider whether Aristotelian ethics could be a contender for an alternative ethical framework. (3)

The works listed above present very different accounts of Aristotle's thought and its applicability to contemporary ethics. A point that Korsgaard treats as Aristotle's weakness--the centrality of the appeal to human nature--Foot regards as a strength. Williams is ambivalent: he sees a commitment to ethical naturalism as central to the coherence of Aristotle's view but also as an aspect that makes it unavailable to modern audiences. (4) McDowell, conversely, denies that Aristotle intended to make any such appeal. (5) Williams regards Aristotle's naturalism as a search for foundations; Korsgaard and McDowell deny that he could even have appreciated the necessity for grounding ethical claims.

The philosophers considered here include some of the most eminent ethicists of the second half of the previous century: clearly, this controversy is worth exploring. My focus in this paper is on the appropriation of Aristotelian ideas in the late twentieth century "ethics wars." Anscombe is widely credited with reviving virtue ethics, but it is not always appreciated that she also and simultaneously initiated a style of ethical theorizing that uses historical narrative to understand the contemporary landscape and to challenge its core assumptions. We can learn from the differences among the various narratives just how ideologically laden these histories can be, and how the assumptions they make about the metaphysical views of past ages play into their metaethical conclusions. While Foot's "neo-Aristotelian naturalism" is widely regarded as the heir to Anscombe, I suggest that there is a distinct thread in Anscombe's article leading in another direction altogether, and which lies behind the projects developed by MacIntyre, Williams, McDowell, and even Korsgaard. …

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