Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 15, Issue 2, pp 139–141


Open Access

With his ‘meta-ethical’ Principle of Minimal Psychological Realism which holds that moral prescriptions or ideals must be possible, or perceived to be possible, by creatures likes us, Owen Flanagan demanded attention for the feasibility of moral theories. In political philosophy a similar awareness underlies the plea for non-ideal theories of, e.g., human rights. The demand of practical feasibility is, however, sensitive for ideological appropriation. Particularly theorists belonging to the liberal camp begin to question the very idea of social human rights on grounds of practical infeasibility. In the first part of his article, Henning Hahn presents the central positions of the debate on the new minimalism in human rights taken by Amartya Sen, Maurice Cranston and Pablo Gilabert. Initially arguing that a minimalism of human rights on grounds of practical infeasibility alone proves unjustifiable, Hahn opens up, in the second part of his article, two further perspectives, which allow practical infeasibilities to become normatively determinate. In a discussion with James Griffin and Charles Beitz, Hahn defends the thesis that certain feasibility constraints on (social) human rights can be justified if they are grounded either in a normative idea of the appropriate implementation of these rights or in a view of the practical function of a theory of human rights.

In the second article, by Peter Schulte, we enter the debate on the relation between morality and rationality. Both are, according to Schulte, normative: the moral prescription “you ought to help others” is a genuine normative judgment, as well as the rational maxim “you ought to brush your teeth twice a day”. But, says Schulte, it seems that there is a crucial difference these two judgments. In the first part of his article, he argues that this difference is to be understood as a difference between two kinds of normativity: demanding and recommending normativity. The crucial task is, according to Schulte, to explain the difference. In the second part of this paper, he suggests that meta-ethical expressivists can provide a good explanation: by extending the analysis of ordinary (non-normative) demands and recommendations to normative judgments, they can formulate a convincing account that captures the key differences between morality and rationality.

Since Derek Parfit introduced his Non-Identity problem, Non-Identity arguments pop up in discussions on various issues, particularly in medical and environmental ethics. In Anthony Wrigley’s view these arguments have a pervasive but sometimes counter-intuitive grip. In his article, Wrigley shows how the pervasive force and nature of Non-Identity arguments rely upon a specific adoption of a theory of modality and identity and how adopting an alternative account of modality can be used to reject many conclusions formed through Non-Identity type arguments. By using Lewis’s counterpart-theoretic account to understand ways we might have been, he outlines the basis of a modal account of harm that incorporates a person-affecting aspect. According to Wrigley, this has significant implications for ethical decision-making in areas such as reproductive choice and the welfare of future generations.

Raimond Gaita’s example of saintly love, in which the visit of a nun to psychiatric patients has profound effects on him, has been criticised for being an odd and unconvincing example of saintliness. In her article, Elizabeth Drummond Young defends Gaita against four specific criticisms: firstly, that the nun achieves nothing spectacular, but merely adopts a certain attitude towards people; secondly, that Gaita must already have certain beliefs for the example to work; thirdly, that to be acclaimed a saint requires a saintly biography, not just an incidence of good behaviour; and finally, that there is something oppressive about saintly behaviour. Drummond Young considers that Gaita does indeed leave himself open to criticism on this last point by claiming that saints love impartially. She argues that his description of the example suggests rather that the customs and practices of partial love are at the heart of saintliness and not some form of ‘life-denying’ impartiality. If correct, this view has, according to Drummond Young, the twofold effect of making saintliness appear achievable by ordinary mortals and explaining our feelings of wonder in the face of such saintly behaviour.

Empirical research paints a dismal portrayal of the role of reason in morality, says Lorraine Besser-Jones. It suggests that reason plays no substantive role in how we make moral judgments or are motivated to act on them. In her article, she explores how it is that an empirically oriented philosopher, committed to methodological naturalism, ought to respond to the sceptical challenge presented by this research. While many think taking this challenge seriously requires revising, sometimes dramatically, how we think about moral agency, Besser-Jones defends the opposite reaction. Contrary to what recent discussions lead us to expect, practical reason is not simply a philosophical fiction lacking empirical roots. Empirical research does not exclude the possibility that practical reason can play a substantive role; rather, there is, she says, evidence that it can help us both to determine our first personal moral judgments and to motivate us to act on them.

A central topic in economical ethics is how market morality relates to common, everyday morality. So-called ‘moral institutionalists’ argue for a minimal market morality which excludes all duties of commission, such as the duty to compensate harm and the duty of beneficence. This view is defended by Neo-Classical economists such as William Baumol and Klaus Homann. Moral institutionalists appeal to sociological differentiation theory which says that modern societies develop different subsystems, each with its own tasks, goals, modus operandi, and morality. Politics and the market are different sphere, with different moralities. Moral duties of commission belong to the political sphere, not to the sphere of the market. In their article, Wim Dubbink and Bert van de Ven reject moral institutionalism from a Kantian point of view, mostly inspired by Barbara Herman’s thesis on the invisibility of morality. With liberalism they reject the politicisation of the market. In their view, this doesn’t imply the rejection of the moralisation of the market. The idea of a fully differentiated market must also be rejected because it is either morally over-demanding (to the morally autonomous person) or morally hazardous (to the person with failing moral motivation). Contrary to what the moral institutionalists claim, right action is actually quite difficult in fully differentiated markets.

The common view of reasons is that they are facts that count in favour of some act or attitude. More recently, says Eric Vogelstein, philosophers have begun to appreciate a distinction between objective and subjective reasons, where (roughly) objective reasons are determined by the facts, while subjective reasons are determined by one’s beliefs. While much attention has been focused on theories of objective reasons, very little has been offered in the literature regarding what sort of account of subjective reasons we should adopt. Therefore Vogelstein sets himself to developing a plausible theory of subjective reasons. Taking what has been said thus far as a starting point, he considers several putative theories of subjective reasons. Offering objections and amendments along the way, he intends to settle on what he takes to be a highly plausible account.

The last article discusses Daniel Doviak’s novel agent-based theory of right action that treats the rightness (or deontic status) of an action as a matter of the action’s net intrinsic virtue value (net-IVV)—that is, its balance of over vice. This view is designed, according to Michelle Ciurria, to accommodate three basic tenets of commonsense morality: (i) the maxim that “ought” implies “can,” (ii) the idea that a person can do the right thing for the wrong reason, and (iii) the idea that a virtuous person can have “mixed motives.” In her article, Ciurria argues that Doviak’s account needs to be supplemented with a consequentialist account of the efficacy of well-motivated actions—that is, it should be transformed into a mixed (motives-consequences) account, while retaining its net-IVV calculus. This is because she believes that there are right-making properties external to an agent’s psychology which it important to take into account, especially when an agent’s actions negatively affect other people.


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© The Author(s) 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyVU UniversityAmsterdamThe Netherlands

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