The role of philosophy in practising ethics

“What can philosophy contribute to ethics?”, asks James Griffin in a challenge to some of the deepest assumptions of contemporary philosophy. The very question might come as a shock to those used to thinking of ethics simply as a subfield of philosophy. But Griffin reminds us that ethics – conceived of as thinking how we should live – is “something that appears early in the life of a culture”, and does not wait on philosophers to provide it with foundations and the trappings of a theoretical science. Griffin argues that this obsession with contorting the messy expanse of ethical life into a neat theoretical mould distorts our understanding.

Philosophers have tried to reduce all of ethics to a small number of simple rules or principles, but they have missed the fact that the vital constraints on ethics are practical, not theoretical. Ethics cannot be blind to the limits of our capacities – not just what we can physically achieve, but also what we can calculate, and what we can be motivated to do. Neat, abstract theories like Utilitarianism, which tells us to maximize the well-being of all people, demand calculations of future consequences of actions that we cannot perform, and a degree of impartiality in our motivations we do not have, and indeed could not have, without losing the attachments and commitments that make our lives worthwhile.

In any case, there is little chance of finding a simple, unified foundation for ethics. Purportedly foundational principles, like the claim that people are fundamentally equal, or Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative, are too abstract to provide the guidance we need; while supposedly universal principles, like the prohibition on taking innocent life, all seem to admit of plausible exceptions. So like Bernard Williams, to whose work the current volume is both a tribute and a response, Griffin concludes that philosophers should abandon the search for systematic, all-encompassing “ethical theories”, in place of more limited, local forms of moral criticism and conceptual explication.