A book on ethics and philosophy of values

suivre sur twitter

III/ The impossibility of founding morality

The question of the foundation of morality raises, before that of its resolution, the question of its meaning. To find out whether it is possible to found morality, we need to ask what it means to "found morality". Perhaps we will then realise that the authors who sought such a foundation, apparently sharing a common search, were in fact asking quite different questions without realising it; perhaps we will even realise that the questions they were raising had nothing to do with what such a question authentically means.

The failure of any project of moral foundation would then be explained not by the fact that we have never succeeded in finding an answer, but by the fact that we have never succeeded in asking the question itself.

It is in this phenomenon that Moore sees the source of so much disagreement in morality: 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 notes 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.

So let us look at what such a question might mean, before attempting to answer it.

1/ It is not a question of finding out what our duty is

Common sense leads us to think that to establish a particular moral rule is to show that it is a duty. To prove that we must not kill, we would have to establish that it is a duty for any reasonable being not to kill others. It is therefore by using the term "duty" that the question of foundation must be formulated. We will have founded morality when we have proved that all the precepts that make up its supposed content are duties that must be obeyed unconditionally. It is therefore through the concept of duty that the question of the foundation of morality will be posed and answered. We can summarise this approach by saying: "Be moral, because you have to", or "Be moral, because it is your duty". This is how morality finds its foundation.

We could call this conception of morality "ethics of duty". I will not attempt here to determine whether the ethics of duty thus defined legitimately refer to the author we naturally think of: Kant.
Nevertheless, we can examine the value of an ethic of duty defined in this way.

The ethics of duty are based on the project of founding morality solely on the concept of duty, without appealing at any point to the concept of value. However, this is precisely what seems impossible, since an immoral person, the one we are trying to refute, could say: "What has value is violating our duties". The ethics of duty tries to prove that the concept of duty does indeed have a meaning. But we can imagine a kind of evil that would assert that "duty is indeed a concept with meaning, but it has no value".

1. Ibid., preface 1st edition