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Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ethics of the Post Modern Era

Alice C. Linsley


Charles Sanders Peirce          1839-1914
William James                         1842-1910
Bertrand Russell                     1872-1970
Ludwig Wittgenstein               1889-1951
Martin Heidegger                    1889-1976
Rudolf Carnap                        1891-1970
John Dewey                            1894-1904
Ayn Rand                               1905-1982
Elizabeth Anscombe               1919-2001
John B. Rawls                         1921-2002
Jacques Derrida                      1930-2004
Peter Singer                           1946-Present  

"Upon this first...rule of reason, that in order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to believe, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry."--C.S. Peirce

“Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”--Bertrand Russell

"Injustice, then, is simply inequalities that are not to the benefit of all.”--J.B. Rawls

The Post Modern Era is characterized by a proliferation of philosophical developments that seek to destabilize traditional views, interpretations and values. The “new thought” goes against the notion that words and narratives have a fixed meaning. Discussions about language raise questions about the meaning of words like “good” and “evil.” Some postmodern philosophers say that these words are meaningless.

Postmodern ethics is not a complete departure from modern ethics. Rather, it is a continuation of modern thinking in “another mode.” To draw an analogy from linguistics, past ethics have been in the indicative mode, and post-modern ethics are discussed in the subjunctive mode. In language, the indicative mood expresses certainly and objectivity whereas the subjunctive mood expresses uncertainty and subjectivity. In art, postmodernism seeks to produce a feeling, not reproduce an image.

Both modernists and postmodernists favor empiricism and logic over metaphysical approaches to “certainty.” From the mid-20th century to the present, ethicists continue to address questions that have been considered from antiquity: human nature, the good life, moral authority, the limits of human knowledge, etc. They have stressed discontinuity, continuity, and difference within continuity, rather than outright rejection of past ethical answers.

Ethics in the 20th century touched on matters beyond human freedom and moral choice. It questioned the very basis for making judgment about human existence, questioning even the ordinary words we use and the common ideas that we take for granted. Science has influenced post-modern ethics in a profound way, especially the social sciences: anthropology, psychology, sociology and linguistics.

Modern and post-modern ethics present shifting points of moral reference, idealism, ammoralism, objectivism, linguistic analysis, structuralism, and deconstruction.

Structuralism first developed as an intellectual movement in Europe in the Modern Era. It held that human culture may be understood by means of a structure involving symbols and language. Claude Lévi-Strauss was the iconic structuralist. Through his field studies among primitive people in the Amazon, he came to the conclusion that universal “structures” underlie all human activity, giving shape to seemingly disparate cultures and creations. His work had a profound influence even on his critics, the post-structuralists.

A major theme of post-structuralism is instability in the human sciences, due to human complexity and the impossibility of fully escaping structures in order to study them. It is the old adage about the fish not knowing that it is different from non-aquatic creatures.

Derrida in Paris
Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

Postmodernism moved away from traditional interpretations and in the work of the French Algerian philosopher, Jacques Derrida. Derrida sought to uncover and lift up the underbelly of meaning in myths and texts. He enjoyed making fun of traditional interpretations, yet admitted toward the end of his life that there was something fixed at “the center” of reality, what he termed “ontotheology.”  Deconstruction reveals a “presence” that has been called by different names throughout history: logos, nous, arche, God, the metaphysical center, etc.

Derrida’s deconstruction reveals great complexities of meaning in written texts, ideas, myths and human customs. He explored the “metaphysics of presence.” He explores what is present. He wants to know what dominates and blocks what seems not to be present. He ascribes to subordinate objects a more substantial existence than the shadow they cast, or their “trace.” Derrida wrote: "Deconstruction cannot limit itself or proceed immediately to neutralization: it must, by means of a double gesture, a double science, a double writing, practice an overturning of the classical opposition, and a general displacement of the system. It is on that condition alone that deconstruction will provide the means of intervening in the field of oppositions it criticizes" (Metaphysics).

Derrida explores the hidden presence. In so doing, deeper and/or unfamiliar meanings emerge. His method involves neutralizing the shouting voice in order to hear resonances of underlying voices. He looks for Plato behind Aristotle, for mystery behind logic, and for the metaphysical behind the physical. His reversals are a strategic intervention to free western philosophy from the constraints of empiricism, materialism, and linear logic.

Derrida was a master when it came to identifying binary distinctions, such as dominance and subservience, and reversals. In the case of binary oppositions, each component of the binary set means something, and the relationship of the oppositions means something, and the hierarchy exhibited by the set means something. The reversal of the oppositions also means something. The reversal of the subordinated term of an opposition is a significant aspect of Derrida's strategy. In examining a binary opposition and reversals, deconstruction brings to light traces of meaning that cannot be said to be present, but which must have metaphysical existence.

Derrida borrowed the term “deconstruction” from Martin Heidegger. Heidegger exposed the fundamental problem of existence (ontology) or Being (German dasein). He believed the individual’s moral duty is to face one’s non-existence, what he called “negation.” Life involves a dread of death because it means the negation of self or ego. Heidegger believed that authentic being is possible only when the individual faces death as extinction in a straight forward way.

While a student, a priest in his Catholic school gave Heidegger a copy of Franz Brentano’s dissertation, titled, On the Manifold Meaning of Being according to Aristotle. Heidegger said it was, “the chief help and guide of my first awkward attempts to penetrate into philosophy.” He recognized, as did Brentano, that “the question of being captivated Aristotle as the single most important question.”

The significance of Heidegger’s work was overlooked by many who viewed him as a Nazi sympathizer because he failed to speak against the Nazi regime. In developing his version of atheistic existentialism, Heidegger drew on Nietzsche’s view that man decides his own values.

The Russian novelist, Ayn Rand, developed an ethical philosophy known as “Objectivism” which affirms the highest good as self-interest and self-preservation. Objectivism holds that individuals are in contact with an objective reality through sensory perception and that the proper moral purpose of one's life is the pursuit of personal happiness through acting in one's "rational self-interest." Rand argued that the only social system consistent with this morality is laissez-faire capitalism.

Elizabeth Anscombe refuted Nietzsche’s immoralism and perspectivism and developed an argument against Bentham’s utilitarianism. Against Locke's "natural law" theory, Bentham insisted that real rights are those established and enacted by the State. According to this principle, the "utility" or usefulness of a law depends on how widely the pains and pleasures of the law are felt across the spectrum of a society. Anscombe pointed out that consequentialism is incompatible with the Judeo-Christian ethic upon which Western societies were founded. In the Judeo-Christian tradition some actions, such a murder and adultery, are always forbidden exactly because of the consequences felt by families.

J.B. Rawls produced his very influential book A Theory of Justice and developed a democratic system of determining what justice is possible when people must decide from a neutral “blind” position.

In logic, great new minds emerged such as Saul Kripe and Willard Van Orman Quine. They were influenced by the work of Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell for whom logic was the supreme measure of verifiable knowledge. Frege's logic is known as second-order logic. His writings were largely ignored when first published, but were introduced to later generations by Giuseppe Peano (1858–1932) and Russell, both of whom saw the merit of Frege’s work.

In 1903, Russell wrote an appendix to his book The Principles of Mathematics in which he explained his differences with Frege. Though Charles Sanders Peirce did not review Russell’s book with great enthusiasm, it is evident that Russell was influenced by Pragmatism, a very influential American philosophical movement.


Pragmatism is a method for solving or evaluating intellectual problems, and a theory about the kinds of knowledge humans are able to acquire. It is a modern treatment of the age old questions of what can be known and what constitutes humans uniqueness. The nihilists argued that nothing can be known, and even if something were knowable, it could not be communicated. The Skeptics argued that very little that we say we know is actually true. The Pragmatists, as heirs of Enlightenment rationality and the Modern Era’s emphasis on operational science, attempted to ground knowledge on logic and facts.

Pragmatism is an American philosophical development that was strongly influenced by Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Darwin introduced the theory that populations evolve over the course of generations through a process of mutation and natural selection. He speculated that the diversity of biological life arose from a common ancestor through a branching pattern of evolution (nested hierarchies). This theory is based on Darwin’s research did during the Beagle Expedition in the 1830s.

C.S. Peirce
Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914)

Charles Sanders Peirce was an early pioneer of Pragmatism, a philosophical movement that found different expressions in the works of William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and John Dewey. Peirce received his M.A. from Harvard in 1862, and was a professor at Johns Hopkins. He defined Pragmatism as a philosophical approach designed to bring clarity through the application of logic. He wrote:

"The study of philosophy consists, therefore, in reflexion, and pragmatism is that method of reflexion which is guided by constantly holding in view its purpose and the purpose of the ideas it analyzes, whether these ends be of the nature and uses of action or of thought. It will be seen that pragmatism is not a Weltanschauung [worldview] but is a method of reflexion having for its purpose to render ideas clear." (From Peirce's Personal Interleaved Copy of the 'Century Dictionary', CP 5.13 n. 1, c. 1902)

Peirce, William James and Oliver Wendell Holmes interacted with each other during their time at Cambridge, Massachusetts. There they founded The Metaphysical Club in 1872. This group held conversations about the Civil War, logic, empiricism, and Darwin's ideas. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who later became a Supreme Court Justice, said, “The mind, once expanded to the dimensions of larger ideas, never returns to its original size.”

The name of the club is ironic since the members had no interest in metaphysics. Metaphysics is the philosophical exploration of entities beyond matter: Goodness, Truth, Eternity, the Soul, God, etc. Peirce wrote, "...pragmatism is, in itself, no doctrine of metaphysics, no attempt to determine any truth of things. It is merely a method of ascertaining the meanings of hard words and of abstract concepts. All pragmatists of whatsoever stripe will cordially assent to that statement."

The term “Pragmatism” was not applied to this philosophical movement until1898 when William James first used the term in a lecture. For James, Pragmatism was a way to apply Darwin's theory of natural selection to philosophy. The mid-century Pragmatists believed that humans have survived and evolved because organisms with the ability to reason logically are naturally selected over organisms without reasoning.

William James (1842-1910)

William James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. The book comprises James' edited Gifford Lectures on natural theology, which were delivered at the University of Edinburgh in 1901 and 1902. These lectures concerned the nature of religion and the neglect of science in the academic study of religion.

James described religious experience in psychological terms, and believed that religions serve as social value. He even granted the possibility of supernatural experience, though he held that this is beyond the bounds of Pragmatism. Dewey rejected the idea that religious experience reflects a unique supernatural category of knowledge. He agreed that religion might serve a social benefit, but never as a vehicle for verifying facts. He believed that God and religion could be explained entirely in natural or materialist terms.

John Dewey (1894-1904)

Dewey founded the Chicago School of Pragmatism at the University of Chicago. The original group included George H. Mead, James H. Tufts, James R. Angell, Edward Scribner Ames (Ph.D. Chicago 1895), and Addison W. Moore (Ph.D. Chicago 1898). There were half a dozen women in the group also, as shown in the photo below. Dewey is at the center, directly below the light fixture.

The primary influences on Dewey’s thought were Hegel and Darwin. He was both a materialist and an atheist, as evidenced from his first published article (1882) titled “The Metaphysical Assumptions of Materialism.” He believed that Man stands alone in his efforts to create the world of his dreams. Humans have finally reached the stage of evolution that makes them able to realize an ideal society.

Dewey’s pragmatism profoundly shaped American public education. He insisted that the scientific method is the only reliable way to increase human good. His writings have led to Scientism, the belief that science alone has authority to verify truth. He applied the theory of natural selection to education, insisting that some were more deserving of a higher level of education than others. Likewise, these more evolved thinkers should be the only ones permitted to teach at the higher levels.

Dewey was an atheist. In his view, God is an idea that "denotes the unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and actions." As a product of the human imagination, God has no reality, but Dewey thought that the idea of God might serve as a useful instrument in society.

Dewey’s advocacy of Hegelian materialism and Darwinian evolution made him more of an ideologue than a philosopher. Ironically, his lack of objectivity represents a betrayal of one of Peirce's cardinal rules: “Do not block the way of inquiry.” Peirce wrote in 1896, "Upon this first...rule of reason, that in order to learn you must desire to learn, and in so desiring not be satisfied with what you already incline to believe, there follows one corollary which itself deserves to be inscribed upon every wall of the city of philosophy: Do not block the way of inquiry."

Dewey was determined that American education should be based on his materialist evolutionary worldview. His approach had the effect of enshrining Darwin in the public schools and blocking metaphysical inquiry. Without metaphysics there is no means of integrating the subjects taught in schools. Students learn content in various subjects. However, there is no means of integrating learning so much that is learned is lost.

The English writer, Dorothy L. Sayers, noted in her 1947 speech “The Lost Tools of Learning” that the dismissal of metaphysics from modern education has resulted in students learning more, but knowing less than students under Scholasticism when metaphysics was still part of education. She showed that teaching less in more subjects prolongs intellectual childhood because students are not given the tools for mature (lifelong) learning. Sayers’ speech has had a great influence on the ever expanding classical education movement in America.

An honest assessment of American public education suggests that grades motive more than the desire to learn. Politics plays a greater role in educational policy than sound educational research. At the university level, peer review has the effect of diminishing the influence of paradigm-shifters. More honorary degrees are given to celebrities and politicians than to scholars who make authentic contributions to human knowledge. Every American university has been influenced by Pragmatism. The list of scholars and institutions appears here, but this is by no means a comprehensive list.

A critic of Dewey’s “instrumental pragmatism” was the English writer G.K. Chesterton who wrote about the “suicide of thought” in modernism. He appreciated logical thought and empirical evidence, but not the idolatry of scientism. He wrote, “This bald summary of the thought-destroying forces of our time would not be complete without some reference to pragmatism; for though I have here used and should everywhere defend the pragmatist method as a preliminary guide to truth, there is an extreme application of it which involves the absence of all truth whatever.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

Wittgenstein is the leading analytical philosopher of the 20th century. Logical analytic approaches are concerned with the use of language, the logic of language systems, and the relation of language and mind.

Wittgenstein influenced two important female philosophers: Elizabeth Anscombe, who translated his works into English, and Philippa Foot. These women were close friends until Foot moved to the United States. Conversations with Anscombe stimulated Foot’s interest in formulating a new theory of moral philosophy. Both women are known for their contributions to virtue ethics, one of three major approaches in ethics. It emphasizes virtue and character in contrast to deontological ethics (duty) and utilitarian ethics (consequence).

Wittgenstein studied at Trinity College, Cambridge with Bertrand Russell. Russell inspired Wittgenstein to consider the nature of thought itself. In his early works, Wittgenstein maintained that words are human constructions without absolute meaning and that language is incapable of perfect communication. When we speak of a chair, for example, each of us has a different mental picture. Chair is really a word for various wood components that have been assembled in a certain way with nails or brackets. Or perhaps the components are metal and the chair folds. Of perhaps the chair is padded with cushions and upholstered with a colorful fabric.  So the word “chair” can produce different mental pictures.

Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-philosophicus (1921), a volume of only 75 pages, became the Bible of the Vienna Circle. He believed that he provided the “final solution” to philosophical problems. In the Tractatus, he wrote that “philosophy aims at the logical clarification of thoughts” and philosophy is “not a body of propositions, but to make propositions clear.”

In Philosophical Investigations (1953), Wittgenstein argued that “philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.” He argued that language only approximates what is intended. Language is not capable of perfect communication.

Tractatus and Philosophical Investigations are regarded as representative of two distinct phases in Wittgenstein’s thought. The two periods are not oppositional, however. In the Tractatus, he develops his thought about the logic of propositions, and in the Philosophical Investigations he is concerned about other forms of language and explores the question more metaphysically.

Wittgenstein argued that language is composed of complex propositions that can be analyzed into less complex propositions until one arrives at simple or elementary propositions. Correspondingly, the world is composed of complex facts that can be analyzed into less complex facts until one arrives at simple or “atomic” facts. The world is the totality of these facts. So a chair is wood (or metal) and nails (or brackets) and fabric components as well as something upon which we sit.

In Wittgenstein's view this mental picture (chair) which we suppose gives us a true account of an object actually “stands in the way of our seeing the use of the word as it is” (PI:305). The picture of one thing, that is in fact many things, leads us to the childish belief that there is a correspondence between the word and the nature of the thing.

According to Wittgenstein’s picture theory, meaning requires that there be “atomic” facts. In this view, meaning can only be found through analysis of propositions that picture facts. By this reasoning, truth claims that are metaphysical in nature, and ethical statements that are not based on empirical observation and analysis of facts, are meaningless. Since the words good, evil and beauty do not represent simple propositions, it is impossible to know what these words mean. Though murder is almost universally regarded as morally wrong, nevertheless the statement “Murder is evil” is impossible to verify as a fact.

Logical positivists, such as Rudolf Carnap, were influenced by Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. They rejected all truth claims that could not be reduced to atomic facts. They viewed metaphysics as a waste of intellectual energy. Wittgenstein lost attraction for many Logical Positivists when they discovered that he was a fan of the work of Kierkegaard and a man of religious sentiments. Though only a few references to Kierkegaard exist in Wittgenstein’s writings, Wittgenstein clearly shared Kierkegaard’s religious inclinations. In conversation with his friend Maurice O'Connor Drury, Wittgenstein made the following remark: “Bach wrote on the title page of his Orgelbuchlein, ‘To the glory of the most high God, and that my neighbor may be benefited thereby.’ That is what I would have liked to say about my work.”

Logical Positivism (1922-1950)

The philosophical movement of Logical Positivism can be traced to the Vienna Circle (1922), a group of philosophers in Austria who held that experience is the only source of knowledge, and logical analysis using symbolic logic is the proper method for solving philosophical problems. This approach was popularized in Great Britain by A. J. Ayer and in America by Rudolf Carnap.

Logical Positivism held two key beliefs: (1) absolute confidence in empirical experience as the only source of knowledge; and (2) logical analysis performed with the help of symbolic logic is the single method for solving philosophical problems. This group of philosophers attempted to exclude metaphysics from philosophical investigation in favor of strict logical and mathematical analysis. They also stripped ethics of aspects considered important from the earliest time: conscience, intuition, emotion, etc. The result was a materialist and empirical skepticism about all truth claims. Some Logical Positivists were atheists, though this represents an opinion which cannot be proved by even the strictest logic. Others regarded the existence of God as impossible to verify and would be considered agnostics.

Logical Positivists were skeptical about truth claims that were mathematically reducible, yet optimistic about the potential of science to better the human race and life on earth. These shared a commitment to Unified Science, that is, the construction of a system in which every legitimate statement is logically reduced to a direct experience. The Vienna Circle’s Manifesto stated that “The endeavor is to link and harmonize the achievements of individual investigators in their various fields of science.”

Logical Positivism was a highly academic approach that had little appeal to the average person who struggled with day to day matters of moral choice. It also didn’t represent the religious sentiments of Wittgenstein, who called Kierkegaard “a saint.” Although only a few references to Kierkegaard exist in Wittgenstein’s works, it is clear that Wittgenstein shared Kierkegaard’s religious inclinations. In conversation with his friend Maurice O'Connor Drury, Wittgenstein made the following remark:  “Bach wrote on the title page of his Orgelbuchlein, ‘To the glory of the most high God, and that my neighbor may be benefited thereby.’ That is what I would have liked to say about my work.”

A much as he may have wanted to be remembered for giving glory to God, Wittgenstein’s religious thought had little influence on 20th century ethics. His Tractatus on the other hand, influenced the development of Logical Positivism in Great Britain and the United States, and works published after his death influenced Idealism in Germany.

Idealism expressed a renewed interest in innate knowledge. The existence of things depends on their being perceived in the mind. This represents a reaction to the cold logic that striped metaphysics from ethics and replaced it with a materialist worldview. Idealism views the world as a mental construct with no objective existence apart from the Mind. All experienced objects are fundamentally immaterial and a dimension of the mind. Objects exist but, they lack substance.  Their existence necessarily requires their being perceived.

Idealism was expressed as “Immaterialism” in the writings of the Irish bishop George Berkeley (1685-1753), and in the ego consciousness of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who developed an atheistic version of existentialism.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

Heidegger succeeded his former mentor Edmund Husserl at Freidburg University in 1928. Husserl developed a theory called “phenomenology.” He believed that philosophy could be as exact as science, claiming that phenomenological description is capable of a form of scientific positivism.

Heidegger dedicated his book Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) to Husserl and describes his method using Husserl’s term “phenomenology.” However, the book represents a departure from Husserl’s thought. From his school days Heidegger was enthralled by the question of being. He read Aristotle and Brentano to develop a philosophical framework for articulating authentic human existence, what he termed “Dasein.”

Dasein is a compound of the German “da” which means there/here, and “sein” which means to be. Heidegger’s Dasein deals with everyday human existence, not just the consciousness of the individual. It references the unique “human way of being,” a way of being that embodies an understanding of its mortality. Life leads to death and involves a dread of negation of being. Heidegger believed that authentic being was possible only as the individual honestly faces death as extinction.

Heidegger said, "If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life - and only then will I be free to become myself."
Martin Heidegger
Heidegger argued that humans do not create their world by mental pictures, but exist in the world and are shaped by the world. In developing his atheistic existentialism, Heidegger maintained that each person must decide his own values according to his own existence. This means that each individual’s existence is unique. His thought runs counter to the positivist claim that there can only be one right answer to a properly formulated logical problem. This is why Carnap cited Heidegger’s work as an example of “philosophical nonsense” in his 1923 book, The Elimination of Metaphysics.

As with Nietzsche, Heidegger offered no hope of another world or another life beyond this one. We have this life only, and that realization moves us to live differently. We each have a responsibility to act in the time we have to make life meaningful, but our being draws meaning from how we move to non-being or extinction.

Because there is no God and no moral structure to the world, each of us has a radical or “dreadful” freedom to make our own choices, chose our own lifestyle, and decide our own morality. This is more than freedom.  It is an inescapable existential necessity. The world is such that there is no escaping making a choice and there is no escaping the consequences of our choices.

Heidegger’s thought implies a new definition of moral duty, one totally removed from the Judeo-Christian morality. The individual’s moral duty is not to obey God-given laws, but to face the reality of non-existence or negation. In What is Metaphysics? Heidegger poses these questions about negation:

Why are we concerned about this nothing?  The nothing is rejected by science and sacrificed as the unreal.  Science wants to have nothing to do with the nothing.  What is the nothing? Does the nothing exist only because the not, i.e., negation exists?  Or do negation and the not exist only because the nothing exists?  We maintain: the nothing is the simple negation of the totality of being (sein). Anxiety reveals nothing.

The philosopher who most directly answered Heidegger is one of Wittgenstein’s students, Elizabeth Anscombe, an Irish convert to Roman Catholicism who smoked cigars and protested the practice of abortion. In 1968, when much of the intellectual world reacted with anger to Pope Paul VI's reaffirmation of Catholic teaching on contraception, Anscombe and her philosopher husband, Peter Geach, toasted the announcement with champagne. They had seven children.

In the essay “Contraception and Chastity” Anscombe defended traditional Christian teaching on sex. This was a time of experimentation with “free” love and the essay was unpopular. However, it was so intellectually rigorous that her opponents never successfully refuted her arguments.

Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001)

G.E.M. ("Elizabeth") Anscombe was one of the 20th century's most remarkable philosophers. She studied with Ludwig Wittgenstein, and upon his death in 1951 became one of his literary executors. She translated Wittgenstein's unpublished writings, preparing them for publication after his death, and she wrote a book entitled An Introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus.

In 1970, Anscombe was appointed to the chair in Cambridge that had been held by Wittgenstein. Despite her loyalty to her former teacher, Anscombe was not one of Wittgenstein's true disciples. Her great intelligence and originality led her in different directions and to different conclusions.

In 1958, Anscombe produced a paper entitled “Modern Moral Philosophy” in which she offered a critique of prevailing academic approaches to ethics. In this paper she pointed out that while Aristotle had much to say about virtue and vices, he did not think of morality as people do today.  Our conception of morality comes from centuries of Christianity, drawing on Jewish law (Torah). The Judeo-Christian conception of moral obligation is based on codified law (such as the Law of Tehut, and the Code of Hammurabi).  From the first century A.D., Greek-speaking converts to Christianity sought to conform to virtues and avoid vices because these were viewed as a requirement of divine law.

Anscombe’s work restored interest among philosophers in the Aristotelian idea of virtue. Her paper on modern moral philosophy advanced “virtue ethics” in the 20th century. Her influence is seen in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre’s book After Virtue (1985) and Onora O'Neill’s book Towards Justice and Virtue (1996).

It was in the area of moral philosophy that Anscombe countered Heidegger’s bleak existentialism. She argued that since 20th century western society is no longer Christian, the terms “good” and “evil” or “right” and “wrong” are no longer useful. She recommended discarding the terms “right” and “wrong” in favor of the terms “justice” and “injustice.” These terms are only meaningful as they are attached to the Judeo-Christian concept of a law-giving Creator God. Anscombe believed that in the post-Christian world most philosophers are utilitarians or consequentialists, judging the ethical value of an action by its consequences. She pointed out that utilitarian ethics is incompatible with the Judeo-Christian tradition that insists that some actions are always forbidden regardless of the consequences.

In her argument, Anscombe assumes that the world is a place where the reasoning individual can be assured that concepts of justice, good, and moral obligation have meaning. This suggests that Heidegger’s “nothing” which causes us anxiety has a binary opposite – something – and this something potentially relieves anxiety. The logic of her argument is that when we feel the anxiety of injustice (which is negating) we should perform justice.  Justice then is not a state of affairs, but a practical virtue of a good person. It is perhaps the derived virtue of being made in the image of a Good God.

Anscombe responded to Leibniz’ on the problem of evil and suffering (theodicy). Leibniz wrote: “It is generally agreed that whatever God wills is good and just. But there remains the question whether it is good and just because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good and just; in other words, whether justice and goodness are arbitrary or whether they belong to the necessary and eternal truths about the nature of things, as do numbers and proportions (Reflections of The Common Concept of Justice). 

Anscombe argued that death, injustice, and suffering can only be experienced as “bad” because humanity knows what is “good.” Her argument is the reverse of Heraclitus’ (540-480 BC) who said “If it were not for injustice, men would not know justice.” Anscombe is saying that the study of Man as subject leads logically to the conclusion that were it not for justice, humans would not know injustice.

The question of justice and how it is to be achieved becomes more complex in pluralistic societies where there are many competing interests.  How can a modern liberal democracy hope to have “liberty and justice for all” when the rule of the majority necessarily overrides the interests of minorities?  This problem was addressed by the American political ethicist John B. Rawls.

John B. Rawls (1921-2002)

John B. Rawls is recognized as one of the leading political philosophers of the 20th century. He was born in Baltimore in 1921 and went to Princeton as an undergraduate. He considered entering the Episcopal priesthood, but lost his faith after his war experiences in the Pacific in World War II. He taught at Harvard for more than 30 years. Amongst his students were some accomplished American philosophers, including Martha Nussbaum, Thomas Nagel, Onora O'Neill, Christine Korsgaard, and Susan Neiman.

J. B. Rawls
Rawls’s first book was book A Theory of Justice published in 1971. Nearly 600 pages long, it has been translated into 27 languages. Rawls claimed to have articulated a theory of justice which is genuinely universal and acceptable from our present, pluralistic, political perspective. His book has greatly influenced political theory. A few regard his experiment as pernicious.

Two of Rawls's brothers died in childhood because they had contracted fatal illnesses from him. In 1928, at age 7, John contracted diphtheria. His younger brother Bobby visited him in his room and was infected and died. The next winter, John contracted pneumonia. Another younger brother, Tommy, caught the illness from him and died." Rawls’ biographer Thomas Pogge calls the loss of his two brothers the "most important events in Jack’s childhood." The unfairness of these tragic deaths caused Rawls to ponder the nature of fairness and justice, and to dedicate his entire professional life to that question. He wrote:

"My aim is to present a conception of justice which generalizes and carries to a higher level of abstraction the familiar theory of the social contract as found, say, in Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. In order to do this we are not to think of the original contract as one to enter a particular society or to set up a particular form of government. Rather, the guiding idea is that the principles of justice for the basic structure of society are the object of the original agreement. They are the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association. These principles are to regulate all further agreements; they specify the kinds of social cooperation that can be entered into and the forms of government that can be established. This way of regarding the principles of justice I shall call justice as fairness. ... ""I shall now state in a provisional form the two principles of justice that I believe would be chosen in the original position. ... The first statement of the two principles reads as follows.

First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.

Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.

There are two ambiguous phrases in the second principle, namely 'everyone's advantage' and 'open to all.’

By way of general comment, these principles primarily apply, as I have said, to the basic structure of society. They are to govern the assignment of rights and duties and to regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages. As their formulation suggests, these principles presuppose that the social structure can be divided into two more or less distinct parts, the first principle applying to the one, the second to the other. They distinguish between those aspects of the social system that define and secure the equal liberties of citizenship and those that specify and establish social and economic inequalities. The basic liberties of citizens are, roughly speaking, political liberty (the right to vote and to be eligible for public office) together with freedom of speech and assembly; liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person along with the right to hold (personal) property; and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure as defined by the concept of the rule of law. These liberties are all required to be equal by the first principle, since citizens of a just society are to have the same basic rights.

The second principle applies, in the first approximation, to the distribution of income and wealth and to the design of organizations that make use of differences in authority and responsibility, or chains of command. While the distribution of wealth and income need not be equal, it must be to everyone's advantage, and at the same time, positions of authority and offices of command must be accessible to all. One applies the second principle by holding positions open, and then, subject to this constraint, arranges social and economic inequalities so that everyone benefits.

These principles are to be arranged in a serial order with the first principle prior to the second. This ordering means that a departure from the institutions of equal liberty required by the first principle cannot be justified by, or compensated for, by greater social and economic advantages. The distribution of wealth and income, and the hierarchies of authority, must be consistent with both the liberties of equal citizenship and equality of opportunity.

It is clear that these principles are rather specific in their content, and their acceptance rests on certain assumptions that I must eventually try to explain and justify. A theory of justice depends upon a theory of society in ways that will become evident as we proceed. For the present, it should be observed that the two principles (and this holds for all formulations) are a special case of a more general conception of justice that can be expressed as follows.

All social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect— are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone's advantage."

Rawls's theory of justice is posed as an alternative to the utilitarian approach that holds that the best consequences indicate the best choices. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls wrote “Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override.  Therefore, in a just society the rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or the calculus of social interests.”

Rawls proposed a social contract approach to justice that revolves around three principles: (1) each individual is to have equal right to the greatest personal liberty that is compatible with like liberty for all; and (2) social and economic inequalities are to be attached to public positions that are open to all under conditions of fairness in opportunity; and (3) when these principles are in conflict, the first principle must take priority.

Rawls accepts that there will always be some economic differences in society.  He is not a Marxian. His concern is that those who are at the bottom should never be allowed to sink below the level of basic material needs. Fairness of opportunity requires consideration of those in society whose abilities may be such that they remain the least fortunate. To prevent extreme poverty, he developed what he called the “difference principle.” 

Using the difference principle, Rawls hoped to minimize wealth differences by insisting that inequalities in basic goods can be allowed only if distribution of primary goods first benefits the poorest. He argued that the welfare of society depends on the welfare of the poorest, and that a just society makes fairness to all a primary consideration when forming public policy.

Rawls’ egalitarian approach to justice is a hypothetical one.  It is not so much a philosophy as it is a method for constitution-building.  He conducted his thought-experiment with his students at Harvard.  Rawls’ method requires that participants forget their economic status, race, gender, level of education, religion, physical and mental abilities, etc. Under this “veil of ignorance”, each is to consider fairness from an “original position”; that is, they must establish a principle of fairness (such as distribution of income) without knowing beforehand where they end up in the pecking order. Rawls believed that nobody would agree to a system that incorporates slavery or totalitarianism since they themselves might end up a slave or oppressed by government officials. He assumes that participants will always act rationally, and in seeking their best self-interest under the veil of ignorance, they will also seek the best interest of all.

Rawls’ thought experiment operates on the assumptions that democracy is the best system, that people should vote, and that private property in not an inalienable right (against John Locke). His primary concern is justice. Rawls defends a welfare form of democracy on the basis of his belief that a just society requires that individual’s democratic rights must always take priority over the common good. In his view that there is a fixed point of reference by which to decide justice, Rawls follows the deontological ethics of Immanuel Kant.

Another view of how humans act in their own self-interest was developed by the Russian novelist Ayn Rand in her famous book The Fountainhead (1943). The title is a reference to Rand's statement that “man's ego is the fountainhead of human progress.” In this book, and in her later volume Atlas Shrugged (1957), Rand lays down the ethical principle of rational self-interest that would become the basis for Objectivism. She argues that rational selfishness is a virtue and that this virtue can be developed only by those who autonomously develop their own code of values and conduct.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982)

All the moral theories investigated so far in this course such as Kantianism, utilitarianism, and common-sense morality (Anscombe), require that the moral agent consider the interests of others. They recognize the possibility that sacrifices may be necessary to achieve a good end or a just society. Ayn Rand’s thought marks a departure from these theories.

Rand advocated rational individualism and laissez-faire capitalism, and rejected socialism, altruism, and religion. She argued that it is rational only for one to seek to maximize one’s self-interest and that self-sacrifice for the good of others (altruism) is irrational. Rand argues that selfishness is a proper virtue and that the rational person will pursue it. She argued that the rational man lives “with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life.”

Rand held that individual happiness involves choices and that “A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality” (Atlas Shrugged). She wrote: “Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice — and the alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal. Man has to be man — by choice; he has to hold his life as a value — by choice; he has to learn to sustain it — by choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtues — by choice.”

Rand’s Objectivism is based on her view that the individual must elect to place self-interest as first priority in order not to become a “suicidal animal”. However, she never claims that there is a moral requirement to choose to value one's life. To be moral is to choose that which promotes one's thriving in one’s personal context. There are no Kantian “categorical imperatives” that an individual would be obliged to carry out regardless of consequences for his life.

Rawls held that a person committed to justice for all as the highest self-interest can put himself in the “original position” and decide impartially. Rand, on the other hand, argues that justice for all is meaningless because nobody is able to reason impartially. Humans, in order to be human, act in accordance with what they think will promote their own best interest. To do otherwise, in Rand’s view, is to act as a non-rational animal.

Rand’s ethical position assumes that rationality is the distinctive characteristic of human nature. In this she and Aristotle would agree. However, Rand departs from Aristotle on a critical point: Aristotle believed that humans are political creatures and that reason is in the service of public life. Rand believed that humans are rational creatures whose service to public life should take the form of indifference.

Peter Singer (1946-Present)

The Australian ethicist Peter Singer is the son of Viennese Jewish refugees. He teaches biomedical ethics at Princeton University. Biomedical ethics explores health care choices and the dilemmas that medical practitioners face. Singer writes: “My work is based on the assumption that clarity and consistency in our moral thinking is likely, in the long run, to lead us to hold better views on ethical issues.”

In A Darwinian Left, Singer outlines a plan for the political left to act affirmatively toward the environment and social problems. He says that humans naturally tend to be self-interested and argues that just because selfish tendencies are natural, that does not make them morally right. He recognizes that humans want to enjoy the good life and often would rather ignore the suffering of others in the world. He gives 20% of his income to world relief agencies and tries to live simply. Such attitudes are short sighted in a shrinking world.

While in Australia, Singer ran for political office as a candidate for the Green Party (environmentalist). His political leaning is leftist, but he is not a Marxian. In 2010, Singer said: “Capitalism is very far from a perfect system, but so far we have yet to find anything that clearly does a better job of meeting human needs than a regulated capitalist economy coupled with a welfare and health care system that meets the basic needs of those who do not thrive in the capitalist economy.”

Singer’s views are a mix of conventional and controversial. His less controversial principal is the Gold Rule which he expresses in these words: “We should always think Golden Rule: Would I want this done to me?” He applies this to all living organisms.

Singer is an animal rights activist (as were Bentham, Schopenhauer and Rawls). Animals suffer pain as do humans, and neither should be allowed to suffer. Singer believes that it is better to experiment on the terminally ill human who has no consciousness and no sensation of pain than to experiment on animals who feel pain. Dr. Singer has chained himself in stocks to show solidarity with farm animals. He argues that it is ethical to perform tests on people and animals who do not feel pain. Singer echoes Rawls who wrote, “Certainly it is wrong to be cruel to animals and the destruction of a whole species can be a great evil. The capacity for feelings of pleasure and pain and for the form of life of which animals are capable clearly impose duties of compassion and humanity in their case.”

A more controversial principle is Singer’s approval of euthanasia for the terminally ill and severely handicapped individuals who no longer have consciousness. This is justified in order to prevent families and the sick and handicapped future suffering. This view is controversial because of moral distaste of the 1930’s Eugenics movement, and the Kevorkian assisted suicides of the 1980's and 1990's.  

It is especially alarming to persons with physical handicaps. Not Dead Yet is a lobby of handicapped persons who seek to protect the rights of fellow handicapped citizens. They have protested against Dr. Singer’s teaching at Princeton. One NDY banner read “Is Princeton to become a 'poison ivy' league school?”

There is a central difficulty in Singer’s ethical system. He asks that we justify putting to death the terminally ill or the severely disabled infant on the basis that we would want it done to us were we in the same situation. The average person cannot justify euthanasia using the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule is a rule of reciprocity intended to improve the quality of human relations. It cannot be applied to taking life.

Singer is well aware of the objections to his ethical system. In his book Practical Ethics, he wrote:
In dealing with an objection to the view of abortion presented in Chapter 6, we have already looked beyond abortion to infanticide. In so doing we will have confirmed the suspicion of supporters of the sanctity of human life that once abortion is accepted, euthanasia lurks around the next comer - and for them, euthanasia is an unequivocal evil. It has, they point out, been rejected by doctors since the fifth century B.C., when physicians first took the Oath of Hippocrates and swore 'to give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel'. Moreover, they argue, the Nazi extermination programme is a recent and terrible example of what can happen once we give the state the power to MI innocent human beings.  (Practical Ethics, 2nd edition, Cambridge, 1993, p. 175)

The most controversial question asked about Singer’s ethics of death and dying is whether or not the State should have the power to euthanize. The greater the emotional distance from the patient, the more impersonal the decision. Most people are more comfortable with families making such decisions, as they know their loved ones better, and hopefully base their decisions on compassion. Among archaic peoples, killing a member of the community was regarded as a serious violation, bringing blood guilt upon the individual and the community. That is why people who committed crimes were banished rather than executed. People do not want to kill, or be responsible for killing, their own kin.


The Post Modern Era is characterized by skepticism toward metaphysical truth claims and a destabilization of traditional views, interpretations and values. Though metaphysics was regarded as an essential branch of philosophy by Plato, Aristotle and virtually every philosopher until the 20th century, many philosophical approaches of the Post Modern Era insisted that metaphysics has no value in objective inquiry. Such was the claim of the Pragmatists and the Logical Positivists.

Wittgenstein showed that language is incapable of perfect communication because a word and an object are not naturally linked. Any link in the mind is due to experience, not a natural connection. This does not mean that all post-modernists reject the possibility of finding meaning through language. Jacques Derrida found great complexity of meaning in his deconstruction of the texts and subtexts of myths and legends. Yet Derrida himself admitted that there was something fixed at “the center” of Reality, even though the ontological center is called different names by different people at different times and places.

If all language only approximates the object being described, statements about good, evil and beauty cannot be simple propositions. Given the ambiguity of language, the statement “Murder is evil” is impossible to verify.

Logical Positivists, such as Rudolf Carnap, took Wittgenstein’s Tractatus as their Bible. They were only concerned with “atomic” facts that represent things that can be verified using strict logic and mathematical analysis. Most Logical Positivists were atheists or agnostics.

Idealism developed as a reaction to the cold calculations of Logical Positivism. Idealists held that our notions of good and evil, as well as everything that we see or sense in the material world, are purely mental concepts. The existence of things depends on their being perceived in the mind.

Heidegger believed the individual’s moral duty is to face one’s non-existence, what he called “negation.” The human way of being embodies recognition of mortality and a natural dread of death. Heidegger believed that authentic being is possible only when the individual faces death honestly.

Anscombe believed that Bentham’s utilitarian ethics and Christianity are incompatible. She held to the validity of Natural Law. She believed that the Judeo-Christian concepts of good and evil are meaningless in Post-Christian western societies. She urged moving ethical discussion forward by using the concepts of “justice” and “injustice” instead.

Rawls thought experiment is designed to establish a social contract or constitution based on the “veil of ignorance” of one’s position or status in that society. His method requires that participants forget their economic status, race, gender, level of education, religion, physical and mental abilities, and consider fairness from an “original position.” Rawls believed that nobody would agree to a system in which they might end up a slave or poor. He assumed that participants will always act rationally, and in seeking their best self-interest, they would also seek the best interest of all. He hoped to minimize wealth differences by using the difference principle: inequalities in basic goods can be allowed only if distribution of primary goods first benefits the poorest.

Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism” sees rational self-interest as the single moral obligation.  By this measure self-sacrifice for others is irrational. She believed that rational selfishness is a virtue. Rand’s rational selfishness differs from Aristotle’s eudaimonism because Aristotle believed that, as political creatures, humans must consider the happiness of others to be happy. Rand’s attitude toward politics was one of indifference. Her ideal government is one which allows citizens to live as they choose with the barest minimum of interference.

Peter Singer sees moral obligation in terms of the reciprocity of the Golden Rule. Before taking an action that affects another living being, one should ask if this action is something they would want done to themselves. He argues that it is ethical to euthanize the terminally ill, the handicapped and seriously sick babies as long as this can be done painlessly. This is to be a family decision and one decided on the basis of compassion. Singer stands squarely in the Positivist tradition. He rejects what he regards as metaphysical understandings of human beings. He finds “sanctity-of-life,” “human dignity,” and “created in the image of God” to be spurious notions without basis in fact.

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