For those of us that think moral theory (MT hereafter) is a legitimate philosophical enterprise, we assume some things about morality, and test these assumptions about MT has been the role of metaethics. As such, there has been a longstanding distinction drawn between normative and metaethics in Anglo-American departments. While I have internalized this distinction, it’s a bad distinction because what goes up must come down, and vice versa. It’d be fine to say, I think, that they blur into each other since the doing of ethics requires that ethicists defend the best way to deliberate, normative theory, and defend the assumptions that go behind and justify the best way to deliberate, hence metaethics. In a full comprehensive view, then MT can refer to this collective purpose and commingling of the normative and metaethical since they work together. Practice requires theory, and theory comes from practice.
I have taken the liberty of putting into propositional form what I take to be the most ideal assumptions of a strong MT. I’ve called them the MT Desirables.
(1) Morality is commensurable. Some moral beliefs are weaker than others; some are just clearly wrong, and others trump the relative weight (or height—if you read Scheler you know I prefer height) of other moral beliefs. Under this assumption, moral theory provides a way to tell which moral beliefs weak or less right than others that are stronger and therefore more required.
(2) Morality is objective. Some moral beliefs are true. In fact, the relationship between (1) and (2) is that truth and a moral belief’s objectivity gives it weight or height to stand above others precisely because the others may be false. Under this assumption, the purpose of moral theory is to provide a method of deliberation to arrive at objective morality.
(3) Morality is codifiable. Under this assumption, the project of normative theory should be to supply a universal code of moral beliefs, and if (1) and (2) hold, then those certainly would be the moral beliefs we would recommend to others.
(4) Morality is knowable. Under this fourth assumption, moral beliefs are knowable from a source – typically reason or intuition – that can furnish anyone with the same commensurable, objective, and codifiable beliefs such that (5) is possible
(5) Morality is overriding and possessive of normative/evaluative force. This proposition is thee important feature morality possesses. If morality does not have overriding force, then it cannot compel us to act. This is not a thesis about where and how that overriding and evaluative relates to our desires and motivation, but only that moral beliefs (at some point) possess that normative force and authority.
Spectrum of the MT Desirables
Imagine a line of segments with has marks. On the one side, we would put A and the other B.
A) If a MT is philosophically adequate, then it will have adequate defenses for 1-5.
B) If a MT is philosophically inadadequate, then it will have inadedquate defenses for 1-5.
Now, this is quick blog post, so I do not think that I’ve got everything here, but these are the desideratum of moral theory. The history of 20th century metaethics is replete with taking issues with any or all of these assumptions, and the more modest proposals are probably between A) and B), which would run the gambit of robust moral theories that have answers for 1-5 to normative theories that defend some deflationary account of morality on any single or all points raised by 1-5. I’m guessing that most of us are between A) and B). Most philosophers might want to trade in nuance. Then again, it might be easier to go all out, or as popular romantic comedies now espouse be “all in” for a strong and robust MT.
When I take a look at the list, regardless of what you think of Singer or being a utilitarian, I think, we can sympathize with the power of adopting that moral theory. Utilitarianism has answers for 1-5, and is one of those MTs that’s all in, though there are exceptions undoubtedly ranging from weak to modest commitments between 1-5.
Kantians accept 1-5, and can almost come across as fanatics for morality, especially to those sophisticated Kantians that have adjusted pieces of 1-5 to fit a more concrete picture of what Kant should look like, but that’s only because they have adequate answers from 1-5.
Virtue ethicists reject at the very least 3 and 4, and modify the rest to more particularist, less general, more concrete morality, but that morality couched in terms of a person’s virtue and flourishing are still overriding and objective in the sense that we can know what a phronomoi knows and will likely do.
Regardless where you stand, if you engage in ethical reflection, you obviously assume some conceptual features about MT either explicitly or implicitly. As such, I am not advocating any particular MT or any hybrid MT derived from these sources, but perhaps only that MT should have answers for 1-5 and/or nuanced evaluations about any modifications, adjustments, or skepticism regarding 1-5.
The Questions for Discussion
The question occurs at two levels. On the first level, we could ask if I have conceptualized a list that’s most desirable of any MT? I thought about putting up another number up there, that morality can give action-guidance, but in noticing how much they blur together, I thought against it. Action-guidance is a direct consequence of all of them, so I wasn’t sure if that was saying anything different. I’ll leave that for you to judge.
The second question is a bit different, and the purpose and title of the thread. What do you want from a moral theory? It’s not the same question as what moral theory is the best (though certainly that’s up there in the same realm as the questions I am asking here); instead, I am asking: What do you want from morality?