Practical, modest morality

Value Judgement
January 31, 1997

On all sides we hear calls for improved standards in public and personal life, and those who make or heed them would do well to read this book. The problem with answering such demands lies not only in living up to those standards, hard as that may be, but in setting and evaluating them in the first place. This process is commonly thought of as having two stages. First the moral philosophers determine the ideal moral norms that govern our ethics, and then the legislators create the practical laws and guidelines that apply these ideals in the messy compromises of everyday life. James Griffin does not accept this picture.

There is not, in his view, some higher and purer moral domain, against whose determinate ideals our fallible laws and social standards must be measured. We certainly need moral norms in order to criticise laws, but academics developing them should realise that they are working in the same ambiguous social domain as the legislators.

According to Griffin, we hold ethical beliefs in order to decide how to live, so evaluating those beliefs requires a realistic picture of what it involves to live a good human life. In particular, since "ought" implies "can", moral norms - no less than legislation - must take account of human capabilities. Classic ethical "systems" are too ambitious, constituting programmes that fallible humans could never carry out.

Besides taking account of the human moral agent, the critical assessment of ethics also needs to ask what a good life is like. With the term "good" comes the concept of value, and its attendant well-known difficulties. Griffin is opposed both to reductive naturalism, which holds that value is nothing but a function of physical nature, and to the dualism which locates it in a separate supernatural realm. He challenges the assumption that there are at the outset clearly defined boundaries to what we call the natural world, and is attracted to an "expansive naturalism" whose limits are broadened to encompass prudential values.

By this he means that there is not (as Hume thought) a two-stage process, whereby we first recognise an objective fact of nature and then have a subjective reaction to it. Evaluation of some kind is built into the initial recognition. An obvious example is pain. We do not recognise pain and then decide whether to assign it positive or negative value: a negative view is built into the very meaning of the word. Thus "avoid pain" can be regarded as a prudential norm.

Griffin applies similar reasoning to ethical values. Consider cruelty, understood as the gratuitous inflicting of pain. To recognise an act as cruel is already to have made a moral judgement about it. There is no room for a second evaluative stage to follow the initial act of recognition. So "don't be cruel" can be regarded as a moral norm. This conclusion has been reached without recourse to dualism, because the evaluative element has been derived from the prudential norm "avoid pain", which itself derives from the "natural fact" that pain hurts. Griffin calls this "explanation by ascent".

This process provides a core of beliefs of high reliability: beliefs about prudential values, some basic moral beliefs, and certain factual beliefs. These in turn provide constraints upon ethics, which mean a practical start can be made to improving ethical beliefs by eliminating those breaking these constraints. This approach differs from science, where each belief is tested by being brought into coherence with others: if it does not fit, it is rejected, but if it does fit, then it is not only supported by all the others but in its turn it serves further to support them. Ethics does not have sufficient beliefs of high reliability to provide this kind of bootstrap effect. So the aim of ethics must be the modest one of providing norms for us to live by, rather than trying to provide an overarching self-justifying system of beliefs. Griffin argues a convincing case for a less ambitious approach to ethics, and in the process makes a useful start on the task he enjoins upon others.

Reverend Anthony Freeman is managing editor, Journal of Consciousness Studies.

Value Judgement: Improving our Ethical Beliefs

Author - James Griffin
ISBN - 0 19 823553 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 180

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