So is this, as it has been described, the most significant contribution to moral philosophy for well over a century? Or is it a monument to a misdirected programme? Like most work on moral philosophy, On What Matters is divided between two distinct areas. There are theories within ethics, telling us what our values should be or what the contours of our rights and duties are. These are theories in what is known as first-order moral philosophy. Its aim has often been to reduce the teeming plurality of rights and duties, obligations and benefits to some kind of order. At the limit there might be either a small number of principles or even one unique principle, from which everything else could be derived. Hence we find suggestions such as the Golden Rule, John Stuart Mill’s principle of maximising utility, or Kant’s categorical imperative. But we also find writers such as Isaiah Berlin or Bernard Williams, who mistrust all this tidiness and insist, instead, on the irreducible plurality of virtues or the inevitability of insoluble dilemmas as different obligations conflict and jar against each other. Classical tragedy is especially concerned with such conflicts and their insoluble nature. The other branch of the subject consists of second-order theories, telling us something about the status of first-order pronouncements. In this area, often called meta-ethics, notions such as objectivity, knowledge, truth, proof, and reason are used to debate the nature of first-order claims. If I pronounce, for example, that vanity is a sin, could my remark count as objective and perhaps true, or even known to be true, by the light of reason? This is Parfit’s view, rationalism. Or am I more in the business of expressing an attitude or encouraging a sentiment of disapprobation of vanity, voicing a stance rather than describing a fact?
more from Simon Blackburn at the FT here. here