A book on ethics and philosophy of values

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III/ The impossibility of founding morality

When questioning the foundation of morality, it is firstly necessary to define its meaning. In order to determine if it is possible to base ethics on anything, we must ask ourselves what “founding ethics” really means. Maybe we will then see that the authors, who have searched for such a foundation have in fact raised several different questions without knowing it. We may even come to realise that the questions, that they have raised, have nothing to do with the real meaning of this very issue.

The failure of the studies concerning the foundation of ethics would, in this case, not be due to the fact that we have not been able to find an answer but rather to the fact that we have not succeeded in formulating the correct question.

In Moore’s opinion, this is precisely the cause for so many disagreements in the field of ethics: It appears to me that in Ethics, as in all other philosophical studies, the difficulties and disagreements, of which its history is full, are mainly due to a very simple cause: namely to the attempt to answer questions, without first discovering precisely what question it is which you desire to answer.

He remarks that Philosophers are constantly endeavouring to prove that Yes or No will answer questions, to which neither answer is correct, owing to the fact that what they have before their minds is not one question, but several, to some of which the true answer is No, to others Yes 1.
Therefore, before attempting to answer such a question, we have to determine its exact meaning.

1/ The aim is not to determine what our duty is

We commonly think that to found any moral rule is to show that it is a duty. If we want to prove that we must not kill, we should have to demonstrate that it is the duty of every reasonable being to not kill anyone. Therefore, the terms of “duty” or “obligation” must be used to formulate and eventually answer the question concerning the foundation of ethics. Morality shall be founded when we prove that every moral precept is a duty, which we must unconditionally fulfill.
This point of view may be summarised in the following maxims: “Ethics are founded because we ought to be moral”, or “Let us be moral, because we ought to be moral”.

I have named this kind of moral conception the “ethics of duty”.

My aim, in this paper, is not to determine if the origin of the thus defined “ethics of duty” may be legitimately attributed to Kant.
However, I can examine such a conception of ethics, in itself.

The ethics of duty correspond to the idea of founding ethics only on the basis of the concept of duty, without having to refer to the concept of value at any time. However, in my opinion, this is precisely what is impossible to do. We need to refute the immoralist, who maintains that “What has a value is to neglect our duty, violate our obligation, and not follow the moral law”. The ethics of duty aim to prove that the concept of duty does have a real meaning. Nevertheless, we can imagine a form of evil which consists in saying that “Yes, duty is a meaningful concept, but has no value”.

1. Ibid., preface 1st edition