Introduction to Moral Theory - John McCall-2

Introduction to Moral Theory - John McCall-2 - A GENERAL...

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A GENERAL INTRODUCTION TO MORAL THEORY John J. McCall I. Introduction This article will concentrate on a general theory of ethics or morality. (I will use those terms interchangeably.) By "moral theory" I mean a systematic attempt to understand the nature and function of morality and to identify the basic moral principles that are the grounds of our more specific moral attitudes and judgments. A theory of morality could approach such an attempt in one of two ways, with two separate motivations. One approach to constructing a theory of morality is purely descriptive. You might imagine this as the approach of a social scientist, perhaps an anthropologist, who studies a foreign culture and attempts to provide a systematic account of the mores of that culture and to understand the underlying commitments of the population. We can call what the anthropologist develops a Descriptive Moral Theory. Alternatively, a theorist might approach a systematic account of morality for different, rather broader, reasons. Here, the theorist, while still concerned with the factual analysis of what people believe, is also concerned with evaluating the adequacy of those beliefs. Such a theorist would be attempting a much more ambitious project than our anthropologist. This theorist of morality would be ultimately interested in presenting a correct account of morality which could be used as a valid guide for all human behavior. The objective for this second type of theory is to allow persons to assess the adequacy of their own moral attitudes and beliefs, to provide some mechanism for rational criticism of their belief structures. The goal of this type of theory, then, is not purely descriptive. It is also prescriptive; it attempts to offer normative advice and direction. When I indicated that this essay would be an introduction to moral theory, what I had in mind was a discussion of this second type of theory, Prescriptive Moral Theory. [A momentary aside: Some of you, I am sure, are already mentally uttering skeptical comments about the wisdom or the possibility of such theoretical pursuits. There may be good reasons for a healthy skepticism about prescriptive moral theory. There are certainly bad reasons as well. A good reason for skepticism is the suspicion that there is no method for adjudicating, in an unbiased way, conflicts between the moral beliefs of different individuals or cultures. Individuals whose suspicions about this are so strong that they outright deny the possibility of an unbiased method of assessment are known as Ethical Relativists. In this essay, I will not argue against that relativist position directly. However, some of what I have to say later should be taken as urging caution before too quickly assenting to ethical relativism as the final, absolute truth. Briefly, what I discuss later should make us hesitate before abandoning the ideas that, at levels of basic moral principle, there might be wider agreement than we initially suspect and that we might be able to rationally conclude that some fundamental moral principles are more adequate 1
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than their competitors. A bad reason for skepticism about the project of prescriptive moral theory comes from
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Introduction to Moral Theory - John McCall-2 - A GENERAL...

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