Today we return to our discussion of moral philosophy. Let's contextualize the conversation by first identifying the nature of the assumptions upon which moral philosophies are based and constructed.
Metaphysical beliefs are speculative, theoretical and imaginative. They are not grounded in fact but, becasue of the nature of language and our psychological practices and needs, they can resemble something real, or, more specifically, such beliefs can be acted upon as if they are real. In fine, they are abstractions reflecting parts of reality, and moreover they are often distorted abstractions, like the figures and symbols in a surrealistic painting. The word "metaphysics" itself is a distortion of the original conception, which was one of the titles Andronicus of Rhodes used while editing the works of Aristotle. Originally, the Greek prefix meta- means "after", hence the title After-physics. It was meant by Adronicus as an instruction to students: the fourteen books titled Metaphysics should be read after the books on Physics. When Roman Catholic monks translated Adronicus's editions into Latin, they invested the term with the meaning that it has today; hence Beyond-Physics. We can understand why the Catholic monks with their Christian, Platonic and neo-Platonic preoccupations would read the word this way. Indeed, we can sympathize, too, with their religious convictions. Today we draw a sharp distinction, however, between fact and myth, between scientific activity and theoretical speculation; indeed, carefully observing such distinctions is central to our scientific understanding.* That many philosophers do not draw this distinction is evidence of a multitude of conceptual errors and institutional problems: their ignorance and the ignorance of their teachers, political pressures, and the culture of self-promotion that characterizes the academy. While we may believe in our metaphysical assumptions, it is important to recognize that they are not proven, and regardless of how much we believe in them or stand committed to them as personal or professional convictions. They may form part of our argumentation, but they do not prove or "scientifically confirm" our moral beliefs or philosophies of ethics.
In the past the aesthetic and emotional quality of poetry and myth seemed evidence of metaphysical truth, but as the methods of philological, historical and scientific analysis were brought to bear in an examination of poetry (by which I mean myth and metaphysics), the nature of poetry was revealed and any truth-claims for its language were identified, characterized, mitigated, and relegated to their rightful status, and finely characterized. Nevertheless, ignorance, ecclesiastical and academic pressures, and politics remain factors, so philosophers shifted from the abstractions of their metaphysical claims to the abstractions of language itself; that is, they turned to logic. A substitute for metaphysical abstractions was created from the curious motley of distinctions made possible by logic--a sort of theatrical exhibition of language-as-language, or language-as-reality. This practice has its roots in Aristotle, who attempted to make two books about the subject (that is, logic). Following Aristotle's pattern of rationalization, Aquinas developed sequenced patterns of thought in the sphere of theology; if metaphysics was challenged by nature, then the language used to describe that nature might be seen as a source for new "truths"--which weren't observed but rationally (but not reasonably) drawn from observation. Kant then "regularized" the practice, creating through his ratiocination linguistic distinctions that at once appeared to be rooted in reality but were simply reifications of abstractions. While Moses relied upon the spoken "word of God" as a source of truth, Kant relied upon the dazzling fluency of his ratiocination. Kant's clever use of language, his convincing fluency, and his ability to maintain the illusion of authority--chiefly an artifact of his university affiliation and the fame of his publications--remain characteristics of philosophical conversation today.
Moral philosophers often claim for their foundations some potted theory of human nature. At the outset of my discussion here, I should bring to bear something Elizabeth Anscombe said in her paper on "Modern Moral Philosophy", where she asserts that we are "conspicuously lacking . . . an adequate philosophy of psychology."A quick review of the assumptions of moral philosophers regarding some foundational theory of human nature reveals such theories to be potted, incomplete, abstract, reductive, surreal, ludicrous... This is particularly conspicuous among English professors, who, being rather interested in their narcissistic end-game, are eager to grasp any odd bit of anthropological or psychological rubbish, and foist it upon students and junior faculty for the sake of novelty, show-business, or from the necessity to produce some figment of academic work.
Before we move on to number 2. "Moral philosophy, ethical beliefs, or an 'ethical system'", I'll walk through some of the things moral philosophers have said in their attempts to characterize human nature. See you soon.
* I should also point out that the consideration of this distinction is an important thread in the theological discussions taking place in many religions. Exercising the exposition of his orthodox Episcopalian beliefs, in his novels Philip K. Dick often uses the drawing of this distinction to settle matters dealing with the artifice of the world, which involves coming to terms with the things God can and cannot (or will not) do for us, and the things that we have to do for ourselves.