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Sort-Out Session: Justifying moral attitudes

Rather than one of our struggle sessions or jam sessions, I wanted to hold a meetup that focuses on a particular problem in philosophy, taking seriously a view coming out of the Wittgenstein meetups: that problems in philosophy aren't so much solved as they are laid bare. I'm calling it a "sort out session" - we'll consider whether a particular question actually could have a straightforward answer (whether through science, reason, what have you), and if not, we'll bravely attempt to sort out the confusions and motivations that lead to the problem.

The inaugural question is this: how can I justify my moral attitudes or behavior? The question actually has a pretty wide scope - it can appear when religion is a factor, or when it isn't. It appears throughout the history of Western philosophy, but can also be seen in discussions of virtue in Chinese philosophy and throughout ancient Greek philosophy. While the semantics of "moral" may differ from culture to culture, a method of justifying individual or group action (and their guiding values) seems to be common.

There have been attempts at giving a straightforward answer. Utilitarianism would justify a behavior by appealing to a sense of greater good (maximized utility). There are also many theories influenced by Kant that distinguish moral justifications from justifications that appeal to any kind of self-interest, and attempt to draw a moral framework based on universal reason.

There have also been attempts to show that any kind of a straightforward answer is impossible. A system of ethics cannot be completely divorced from a person's self interest, while still being able to motivate an individual. Also, saving somebody's life "in order to promote the greatest utility" sounds a lot less morally appealing than saving a life simply because you felt compelled to save a life. Bernard Williams suggested that, when faced with a decision to save your wife, looking to a moral system is "one thought too many".

Obviously no advanced reading is required. That said, if you'd like a quick introduction to some historic attempts to answer the question I recommend starting with the Act Utilitarianism or Veil of Ignorance Wikipedia pages and just clicking around. If you'd like a slightly more complicated look at arguments against the possibility of a systematic answer to the question, check out Bernard Williams' Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy page.

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  • Erik C.

    Great discussion, exceeded my expectations.

    October 19, 2012

  • Paul

    I'm delayed by traffic but I'll be there.

    October 18, 2012

  • Brian

    Excited for tonight. This will be a great topic for newcomers too

    October 18, 2012

    • Adam

      Great topic for newcomers, but only ironically so. "Welcome to our philosophy group. First, let's talk about why philosophy might not be the right approach to take here."

      1 · October 18, 2012

  • Brian

    I'm interested in the phenomenon of righteous indignation. For example, we disapprove of the callous moral character who blames victims of an injustice for their post-trauma suffering. To do otherwise seems a further injustice.

    October 16, 2012

    • Brian

      Exactly

      October 16, 2012

    • Adam

      I hope to talk quite a lot about feelings of righteousness and blame. Turns out that maybe our feelings don't always follow strict rational rules?

      1 · October 18, 2012

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