Three Observations About Moral Philosophy Today

Below are three features of contemporary moral philosophy that I’ve observed, and that may be worth discussing. I present them largely without judgment, except to say here that each seems like a mixed bag. Feel free to discuss, evaluate, elaborate, etc.  These aren’t the only observations I have about moral philosophy today, but they are ones that recent events have brought to mind. You’re of course welcome to note other aspects of contemporary moral philosophy you think are worth drawing attention to.

1. There has been an extraordinary proliferation of philosophical expertise over the past couple of decades (at least), by which I mean a noticeable increase in the both the sophistication of philosophical argument on, and facility with the empirical facts regarding, very specific morally significant phenomena. In other words, there are formidable ethical experts on particular types of actions and events and conditions who are more knowledgeable of and skillful at philosophizing about them than very smart and talented general ethicists.

2. It appears that moral philosophers have a high degree of confidence in “commonsense morality.” Moral judgments that conform with common moral “intuitions” are often taken to be obviously correct (either because they themselves are fixed anchor points in one’s moral reasoning, or because they follow from one’s more general moral outlook). Whether philosophers are exhibiting more or less of this philosophical conservatism compared to earlier periods is hard to ascertain. It seems like more, but that may be a product of comparing the relatively few philosophers of the past who’ve survived the filter of history (at least some, in part, for the distinctiveness of their views), with the unfiltered mass of today’s philosophers.

3. Moral philosophers seem very concerned with the negative pragmatic effects of the expression of philosophical views and arguments. That the expression of some ideas (in various contexts ranging from private to public) may cause harm, or reinforce undesirable attitudes, or in some other way be dangerous, is regularly a part of the discussion of those ideas. Additionally, the negative effects of misinterpretations of philosophical ideas by laypersons (who might be unfamiliar with philosophical terms of art, or who might ignore subtle but important distinctions) are also brought to bear on discussions of these ideas. There seems to be less discussion of positive pragmatic effects.

Stuart Davis, “Egg Beater No.4”

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