On the skeptical 'foundation' of ethics.

Author:Pihlstrom, Sami
  1. Introduction

    The series of essays by David Hume--"The Epicurean," "The Stoic," "The Platonist," and "The Sceptic" (1)--is relatively well known but has perhaps received less philosophical attention than it should receive. Fortunately, Robert McCarthy has recently considered these writings in an interesting paper, "The Sceptic's Ascent." (2) It is easy to become convinced that the essay series is by no means a marginal piece of Hume's work; on the contrary, reading these essays may lead us to appreciate some of the most fundamental aspects of Hume's conception of philosophy. (3) It is not my purpose here to question McCarthy's, or anyone else's, interpretation of the essays, since I have little to add to his presentation from a scholarly point of view. Hume is, for me, only a starting point for an investigation of the idea of "grounding" ethics (or, rather, the lack thereof). Hence, I intend to offer some to my mind interesting comparisons, recontextualizations and further developments that may highlight the relevance of Hume's views (and of McCarthy's interpretation of them) to some more recent discussions of the methodology and overall concerns of moral philosophy, or of the philosophical search for the good life.

    Thus, even though my remarks will occasionally take us far away from Hume, they may serve as reminders of how certain Humean themes are well and alive in apparently non-Humean contexts. It is the position--or, better, attitude--that we find in "The Sceptic," in particular, that proves valuable in the comparative study I shall engage in; and it is McCarthy's reading of the four essays that brings this out nicely. Moreover, I should add that the present article does not, as such, constitute an argument for the (Humean) view that ethics cannot be metaphysically grounded. It is impossible to deal with various realistic construals of morality, or their anti-realistic denials, in the scope of a single article. (4) What I attempt to do is, rather, to reflect--finding help in Hume and some others--on the question of what kind of an issue the "grounding" or "foundation" of morality is. From the point of view of someone who refuses to share my conclusion, my reflections may seem question-begging. But such a charge would miss my basic point. I do not primarily think of philosophy as a project of demonstrating the truth of certain theses on the basis of indubitable premises. On the contrary, this essay purports to express a kind of metaphilosophical orientation in which skepticism, albeit in a Humean "mitigated" sense, has a guiding role to play--without any of the catastrophic results that opponents of skepticism (more traditionally conceived) have warned about. Indeed, the "skeptical" metaphilosophical way of looking at moral philosophy and its aims and concerns that I recommend should (I hope) lead us to a more human way of engaging in ethical thinking.

    McCarthy notes that Hume's series of essays can be read as an "ascent" from "The Epicurean" through "The Stoic" and "The Platonist" up to "The Sceptic," but persuasively argues that the essays do not constitute an ascent in the ordinary sense of the word. The ultimate result is not any positive philosophical wisdom but a skeptical insight which urges us to philosophize not by aiming at rationally established ultimate truths but in a self-critical and reflexive manner, keeping our thought "in service of action" and ordinary life, to which we should return from our trip to philosophical heights in which "air is too thin to breath" and which are, therefore, too much for our merely human understanding. (5) McCarthy carefully explains how Hume first formulates and then criticizes the Epicurean's, the Stoic's and finally the Platonist's ethical views of life. He shows that the structure of the first three essays is similar: each begins with a problem, proposes a solution ("The Stoic" and "The Platonist" also reject the solution of the preceding essays), and ends up with the limits of the proposed solution. Thus, we can discern an ascent, a single "story of human development from simple natural pleasures to the rarified pleasures of mind and spirit" in the first three pieces; we are "drawn ever upward, from the base physical desire of the Epicurean through the active virtue of the stoic to the sophisticated wisdom of the Platonist." (6) But the ascent turns into a circle as soon as we realize that the Epicurean rejects the Platonist's ideal of contemplation as "artificial happiness." (7) Thus, we move on to the fourth and final essay, in order to find something quite different.

  2. Comparing Hume's "skepticism" with Wittgensteinian and pragmatist moral philosophy

    McCarthy perceptively summarizes what Hume tries to say in "The Sceptic" as follows:

    The others adhere to specific views of happiness, but the sceptic stands above and questions their approach.... The sceptic's sentiments do not incline to any particular view of happiness. Instead, they incline away from the philosophical tendency to impose particular sentiments and ideas on the whole of experience. The sceptic distrusts the philosopher's construction of universal ethical systems from her own peculiar sentiments. Unlike the other sects, then, the sceptics share no positive view, but only opposition to the reductive prejudices of other sects. (8) It is right here that we can take up the comparisons I promised. Upon reading "The Sceptic," and McCarthy's characterization of the Humean "sceptic," one can hardly think of a more accurate description of the kind of moral philosophy some thinkers have found in the legacy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. The so-called Wittgensteinian moral philosophers (among others, Rush Rhees, Peter Winch, D. Z. Phillips, Raimond Gaita, and Lars Hertzberg) have strikingly similarly stressed that moral problems are deeply personal problems which cannot be settled by universal philosophical theories of the good life. (9) These philosophers' approach in ethics is as particularist and down-to-earth as the "sceptic's." They are equally skeptical about universal theoretical systems. In particular, there can, they argue, be no firmer ground than morality itself for philosophical solutions of moral dilemmas. An argument for a view like this cannot be based on any general theory of what morality essentially is or how the good life is necessarily constituted; the view may, instead, be successfully propounded (only) within a Humean-like skeptical framework which questions all rationally constructed theories that claim universal validity. Thus, the "argument" the Wittgensteinians rely on must be, in a Humean sense, skeptical, though of course not skeptical in the sense of denying the subject-transcending validity of ethical statements altogether.

    The "Wittgensteinian" philosophers--whose views I cannot, for obvious reasons, deal with in any detail here--reject moral skepticism, (10) nihilism and anti-realism by rejecting all reductive theories of ethics, i.e., any theories that tend to reduce moral values or moral behavior to something allegedly more fundamental (e.g., physical, biological, psychological, or social). They reject all standard subjectivist conceptions of value, (11) even though they are not prepared to embrace any objectivist theory according to which values (or "moral facts") "exist" in some objectively structured, independent realm of the (natural or supernatural) world, either. The Wittgensteinian approach may be interpreted (instead of any straightforward Humeanism) as an instance of quasi-Kantian transcendental reflection, with a kind of moral realism as the emerging result: our being able to hold any genuinely ethical views on anything--or, presumably, any views whatsoever--or to make any genuinely moral choices in our lives--or, again, any choices, since arguably all our choices have an ethical dimension--necessarily requires that certain ethical views are held by us (personally) as absolutely correct, that is, not as mere opinions, subjective attitudes, or beliefs relative to a person or a community. (12) Yet, despite the Kantian-like argumentation structure we find in Wittgensteinian moral philosophy, the most important conclusion to be drawn resembles Hume's because of its skepticism about moral theories with universalistic aspirations, including Kant's theory. Indeed, the craving for absolute correctness in one's ethical views is not the craving for absoluteness of a philosophical theory. In this sense the analogy to Hume does hold, although surely we have to go beyond Hume's own theory of ethics as grounded in feelings of sympathy in order to arrive at any Wittgensteinian position worthy of the name.

    In addition to neo-Wittgensteinian moral though, Hume's position in "The Sceptic" may be compared to pragmatism. This comparison is readily suggested by the idea that philosophy should be a servant of this-worldly, ordinary human action instead of any other-worldly contemplation. Indeed, pragmatism offers at least as good a mediator as Wittgensteinianism between the view that morality is based on, or can be proved with reference to, some objective transcendent foundation, on the one side, and the equally problematic (and undeniably more Humean) idea that morality is a matter of arbitrary subjective sentiments or preferences, on the other. (13) The priority of our ethically loaded practices themselves can be emphasized by clearly distinguishing a pragmatic form of moral realism from stronger realisms that postulate, in some metaphysical or quasi-scientific manner, moral facts or explanatorily relevant moral properties in the world. Here, pragmatic moral realism (14) is closer to the Wittgensteinian tradition than to the more scientifically minded mainstream of recent analytically oriented discussions of moral realism: ethical judgments, again unlike mere arbitrary preferences or opinions, do in a sense claim "absolute" correctness, but their correctness cannot be...

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