Moral Education and Pluralism

By Mal Leicester; Celia Modgil et al. | Go to book overview

9

Moral Imagination and the Case for Others

M.B.WILKINSON

I cheated in the final of my metaphysics examination: I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.

Woody Allen

In a previous paper (Wilkinson 1999), I outlined the basis of a possible universal ethic based upon the envisioning of possible futures. If such a universal ethic is possible, then there is scope for moral education which can speak with confidence, while fully respecting cultural traditions. It would be helpful, I hope, to summarise some of my earlier conclusions.

Ethical life takes place within a metaphysical context. Much modern debate about ethics has tried to eschew any metaphysical assumptions, and to talk only about the language of morals. This seems to me a fundamental error, not least because living morally presupposes a world in which we experience, live and act. To think about anything, as Husserl often remarked, is always to talk about something. That there is something is presupposed. The twentieth-century philosopher has tended to avoid anything which can be called metaphysical since the onslaught of logical positivism and the linguistic concerns of Wittgenstein and his followers.

To do this was an understandable reaction against the idealist philosophies of nineteenth-century thought. But it should be noted that the most famous assault on metaphysics, in Language, Truth and Logic (Ayer 1946), actually directs all its attention to questioning the possibility of transcendental metaphysics, and makes from that the assertion that: The arguments which we use to refute them (those who indulge in transcendent metaphysics) will…be found to apply to the whole of mataphysics.' This assumption may be questioned (Lejewski 1986) on many grounds, but for present purposes, one consideration will do.

Metaphysics may be defined as the study of what exists. Now, it may well be that there could be things unknowable to human minds, of which we cannot coherently speak. But it does not follow from this that we can say nothing of what exists. There are two possible approaches to metaphysics, called, for convenience, the 'ontological' and the 'cosmological'. Cosmological metaphysics concerns a theory of the whole-God, the universe, spirits and so on. Ontological metaphysics is a piecemeal concern: it tries to determine what we can be fairly sure there is, without claiming completeness. Whether the former is possible is a question we may leave to one side: the second certainly seems a reasonable enterprise, involving no necessary commitment to dreaming of the transcendent. For the purposes of ethical discussion, the second path, the ontological, seems to me sufficient.

I propose one basic metaphysical proposition, with one sub-proposition:

Proposition 1

There exist at least material objects.

Proposition 2

Among material objects there are sentient, reflective and self-directed objects, called 'persons'.

These propositions seem modest enough, even banal, but they are, I think, sufficient for the construction of a universal ethic. I know of no culture which would deny either of the propositions, though most would want to supplement them with other postulates about existing entities. But if these are sufficient metaphysical principles to construct at least a minimal ethic, which can be taught and agreed across cultures, then, using Ockham's Razor (the principle of parsimony, that the simpler

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