On Ethics, Part I: Moral Philosophy’s Third Way

Morality Massimo Pigliucci in Rationally Speaking:

Ethics, its implications and its justifications keep appearing at Rationally Speaking in a variety of forms, from my critique of Sam Harris’ scientism to my rejection of Objectivism, from Julia’s skepticism about meta-ethics to Michael’s criticism of the non-morality of markets. This is, of course, inevitable because ethics is both a crucial component of our lives and a topic that can — with due caution — be approached rationally, which means it does belong to this blog.

So, I have decided to take the bull by its nasty horns and do a multi-part series on ethics (haven’t decided how many parts just yet) with the following objectives: a) make as clear as possible my “third way” between moral relativism and objective moral truths (this essay); b) systematically explore the differences among the major ethical systems proposed by philosophers: deontology, consequentialism, virtue ethics and egalitarianism; and c) apply the method of reflective equilibrium to my own thinking about ethics to see whether I need to revise my positions about moral philosophy (I am starting this quest with a marked preference for virtue ethics, but mixed with the apparently not so easy to reconcile with egalitarianism of John Rawls). We’ll see how far we get, yes?

The starting point for my discussion of what I will refer to as ethics’ “third way” is a recent thoughtful article published in The Stone, the New York Times’ philosophy blog. There, NYU philosopher Paul Boghossian does an excellent job at summarizing the perennial discussion between moral relativists and moral absolutists. Boghossian introduces an interesting contrast to make his readers think about the differences among moral absolutism, moral relativism, and nihilism. Consider first the ancient concept of witches. We (well, most of us) no longer believe that there are witches in the world, so we have dropped talk of witches altogether, engaging in what Boghossian calls “eliminativism” about witches (analogous, of course, to the much more debatable eliminativism in philosophy of mind proposed by Patricia and Paul Churchland).