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August 6, 2018 | by  | in Philosoraptor | [ssba]


Imagine that we live in a post-apocalyptic society. The apocalypse has had one particularly pernicious effect: it has shattered and fragmented the natural sciences beyond repair. Scattered bits of pre-apocalyptic science turn up – a few pages of a biology textbook here, a chemistry paper there. But these fragments are entirely devoid of scientific context, so we are unable to make sense of them. We see strange mathematical symbols and unfamiliar scientific jargon, and have no idea what they mean or refer to.
Yet, since we still possess a vague sense that science is important, we make do with what we have. Children memorise the mathematical equations we find on scraps of paper, and we earnestly debate how to interpret the surviving fragments. Over several generations, we develop a whole new set of “scientific” practices. These practices are complete nonsense, but no one retains enough original scientific knowledge to realise that. So we employ scientific concepts as if we know what we are talking about; we assert scientific claims which are totally false; and so on.
This thought experiment is due to the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. He describes it in order to introduce his main claim: that this hypothetical state of scientific knowledge actually perfectly describes the current state of moral knowledge in our society. MacIntyre claims that we employ moral concepts as if we know what they mean, but in reality they are meaningless, having been stripped of the original context in which they were developed. Of course, there has been no apocalypse that destroyed moral knowledge; instead, it gradually faded away over centuries of social, political, and philosophical change.

What, though, is the vital original context that moral concepts have been taken out of?

MacIntyre claims that we have abandoned two beliefs which used to underlie ethical concepts. The first is a view of humans as having some essential functional purpose. Just as a watch or a pen has a functional purpose, philosophers like Aristotle argued that humans have an intrinsic purpose in life, and moral goodness just means the fulfilment of that purpose. Most people nowadays reject such a view of human nature. Humans are just a contingent result of biological evolution: we have no special status or purpose in the universe.
The second is a view of morality as being divinely mandated. Ethics used to be closely tied up with theology: moral rules were viewed as God-given commands. Of course, there have always been philosophers who doubted this: Socrates’s Euthyphro Dilemma is still seen as a powerful objection to the divine conception of morality. But many philosophers, and much of the population, held this view for much of history.
Yet today, society is increasingly secularised, and even many religious people have moved past narrow theological views of morality. We no longer see a necessary connection between morality and God. And thus, MacIntyre claims, we have lost the essential context for understanding the moral concepts we have inherited.
MacIntyre’s work falls within a wider body of moral philosophy from the past 50 years that has pursued the revival of “virtue ethics,” a brand of ethical theory that identifies moral rightness with the fulfillment of various virtues like kindness, honesty, bravery, and so on. Other famous philosophers in this tradition include Martha Nussbaum and New Zealander Rosalind Hursthouse.


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