From morality to ethics and beyond

17 April 2018

What justifies morality – is it reason, or something else, some kind of higher authority? The word comes from Latin, where moralis denotes ‘character’, and it can be seen to be related to vertu, or merit, and virtutem or moral strength, high character. Both terms, ‘virtue’ and ‘morality’, are used less and less nowadays, where they are increasingly replaced with ‘ethics’, which comes from the Greek ethike philosophia, moral philosophy and has a more normative nature. Are we, nowadays, more interested in principles of action, than personal development? Norms, over character? Regardless, the question remains, what justifies our morality – or our public ethics? What are the grounds for either, or both?

In a section from After Virtue, dedicated to the Enlightenment project, Alasdair MacIntyre notes that it was not until late 17th century that morality became the name for a set of rules of conduct distinct from the theological, the legal and the aesthetic; one that would become central to the European project. But it did not take long to discover that no rational justification could be provided for morality. This, MacIntyre describes as the ‘arbitrariness in our moral culture’, which Kierkegaard saw as the failure of the Enlightenment project. For him, the ethical is “that realm in which principles have authority over us independently of our attitudes, preferences and feelings” (MacIntyre, 2007, 41). And they have such authority not because of some universal reason, but due to the choices we make (insofar as these are based on some good personal reasons). For instance, we can decide to become vegetarians for reasons of health or religion; none of these is universal, but they are both good reasons nonetheless.

MacIntyre believes that the Enlightenment had to fail in its attempts to justify morality not because there were any faults in their arguments, but because of the shared worldview at the time – namely, a rejection of traditional values (mainly, Aristotelian teleology). If we no longer see the good as related to a telos, as Aristotle did, then our moral statements lose any factual value. Likewise, once we accept the secularization of morality by the Enlightenment, we cannot justify moral statements as divine imperatives either. So, in the absence of both a scientific and a religious justification, what are we left with? If something is good neither because it fulfils its purpose, nor a divine reason, how else can we justify it? Pure relativism, one could easily argue. But there is an alternative to it, which MacIntyre seems to suggest when he talks about practical rationality as a third way between moral universality and pluralism. To justify a moral choice this way would amount to verifying that it expresses the norm, which best defines the good in a certain situation, and helps us act according to it. It is a “kind of capacity for judgment which the agent possesses in knowing how to select among the relevant stack of maxims and how to apply them in particular situations” (MacIntyre, 2007, 223). Neo-pragmatism, in other words.

The shift from morality to ethics is a journey from ancient Greece and medieval beliefs in divine law to early modernity, and onto pragmatic normativity. It is a rejection of the unity of morality and law (based on some universal science or religion) and a triumph of the narrative form of human life, which we find in Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and the neo-pragmatists.

But how are we do deal with the unpredictability of this life and morality? And who is to judge which of the various options is the best, in each and every situation? In the absence of a universal reason, isn’t this practical rationality going to depend on sheer rhetoric and argumentation? If virtues are no longer ends in themselves, but mere rules of conduct, what guarantee do we have of ever reaching an agreement as to which ones are best, or most appropriate? MacIntyre does not answer this, except to say – against relativism – that virtues need to be related to practices (rather than reasons), in order to identify “the goods internal to practices which cannot be achieved without the exercise of the virtues” (MacIntyre, 2007, 274). And he gives the example of a great chess player, who is vicious because (s)he only cares about winning and associated goods (fame, money etc.); therefore (s)he cannot achieve any of the internal goods of chess, because his/her aim is not specifically related to chess. In order to be virtuous in his/her pursuit, one needs to seek the excellence associated with that particular practice.

But are we anywhere near this mindset, when we talk about ethics, today? Do we associate virtues with practices? Do we even talk about virtue anymore? What kind of post-post-modernity are we living in, and what comes after ethics?