I have just finished reading, for the first time (and without taking any notes), Philip Kitcher’s new book The Ethical Project. Kitcher’s take on ethics is practical and naturalistic. He calls his kind of ethics pragmatic naturalism, and links it closely to the pragmatism of Dewey and James. He assumes that ethics started out in tribal conditions where altruism failures were a problem. According to Kitcher, the ethical project got its start by establishing roles and rules designed to correct altruism failures. Furthermore, he suggests, with considerable reason, it seems to me, that contemporary ethics is a developmental extension of those first rough attempts to produce, first, a form of behavioural altruism, which was then, by necessity, extended to a truly psychological altruism. (Careful definitions of behavioural and psychological altruism are provided.) When I have reread the book more closely I will get back to what he is proposing in more detail, for what he does propose, it seems to me, might help to break the logjam caused by the many metaethical proposals that are still in play, from the intuitionism of Moore to the emotivism of the logical positivists.
Alongside Kitcher I am also rereading (after many years) Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which starts from the very odd premise that modernity was a mistake, and that to reestablish ethics on sound foundations we have to return to Aristotle and Aquinas. An interesting sidelight on the publication of After Virtue is that the first edition of the book was published shortly after MacIntyre’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. And an interesting comment on that is that the woman who was his wife at the time of his conversion was his third! Since the Roman Catholic Church holds that divorce is impossible, and that the marriage bond is essentially indissoluble by anything but death, it was an odd choice of religious allegiance, except that, in After Virtue, he more or less takes the position of Pope Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti (otherwise known as Pius IX) with respect to modernity, and assumes that it is largely a logical and cultural mistake. (At least that’s the way MacIntyre’s argument seems to me. If only we had retained the virtue ethics of Aristotle as perfected by Aquinas, transitions to the scientific world view would have moved more smoothly, as well as being more intellectually respectable.)
In the first chapter of After Virtue, “A Disquieting Suggestion,” MacIntyre suggests a thought experiment. It is not clear to me that the thought experiment is even entertainable, since it does not explain clearly enough on what basis governance is to be continued in the conditions supposed. He asks us to imagine a time in the future when people have got fed up with science, have removed science from the curricula of schools and universities, killed or imprisoned all the scientists, and then government is carried out — well, how, exactly? Since science is not only physics and math and chemistry and biology, but a fairly strict methodological approach to information, how would a government function where fact checking was ruled out, and decisions were based on pure whim? MacIntyre seems to forget that science is not only composed of lists of facts, but is tied together by theory and based on experience, and that that process can scarcely simply disappear when we stop teaching the sciences. However, imagine it done for the purposes of argument. Now, says MacIntyre, we are to suppose that a generation comes along which is opposed to this science-destructive world outlook. However, during the anti-science period the scientific tradition had been virtually destroyed. There are fragments left, a book here or a page there, and a few memories of phrases and scientific terms, like the periodic table without any sense of what it was once about. But now we are to imagine people trying to reconstruct science in the absence of any understanding of what science was once really about, so they begin using scientific language without really understanding what the language was for, or what it really signified. Science, for this new generation, is a bunch of disjointed technical terms thrown out more or less at random, and repeated pointlessly in a form much like some postmodernist free association.