Odds and Ends

Alan Donagan

  • Ethics after Babel: The Languages of Morals and their Discontents by Jeffrey Stout
    Beacon, 338 pp, $27.50, June 1988, ISBN 0 8070 1402 8

Jeffrey Stout’s Ethics after Babel is, in his own phrase, a ‘philosophy of moral diversity’ – of the sheer foreignness to some people and societies of the moral thinking of some other people and some other societies. Once satisfied that moral diversity is a fact, many philosophers despair of ethics: becoming either moral sceptics, and doubting that true answers to questions about right and wrong can be found by taking thought, or moral nihilists, and denying that moral questions have true answers. Others like Plato, conclude that ethics remains possible, but only by rising above human moral diversity to ‘a God’s-eye view’ of right and wrong. Stout’s point of departure is that to aspire to such a view is vain: it is the ancient sin symbolised as the building of the Tower of Babel. Yet he does not despair. Clearing Babel-like projects out of the way, he directs us to what, in his mind, is an acceptable alternative to them.

Stout on the sin of Babel is reminiscent of the Christian Gospels on the sin against the Holy Ghost: by leaving obscure what the sin is he makes worse the bad news that there is no forgiveness for it. Aquinas asserted that the whole of what he called ‘the natural law’ is embodied in the Ten Commandments revealed by God to Moses, and that human reason can both ascertain what its principles are, and derive from them its more general subordinate precepts. He also described the natural law as ‘a participation in the eternal law by rational creatures’ – the eternal law being the law by which God rules all things. Did he aspire to a God’s-eye view of right and wrong, and so unwittingly commit the sin of Babel? Not according to Stout; for he is chosen (along with Jefferson and Martin Luther King) as an example of a moralist who has gone about his work in a non-Babel way. On the other hand, Kantians and utilitarians are branded as sinners, although it is left dark how they offend if Aquinas did not.

Stout sheds a little light on this question in elucidating what it is for a moral proposition to be true: ‘I have no trouble,’ he writes, ‘with the idea of a culture-transcendent Moral Law if it commits us merely to such notions as ... that there are moral truths ... The problems come when we appeal to the Moral Law, in our explanations or criteria of moral truth, in a way that requires denying that we are necessarily employing culturally embedded categories as we do. For then the implied sense of the phrase “culture-transcendent Moral Law” is: “a set of moral truths one could know or understand without making use of a moral vocabulary”.’ Stout simply does not see how you can be a Kantian or a utilitarian unless you believe that moral propositions are true or false according to whether they correspond or fail to correspond to a set of moral facts one could know or understand without making use of a moral vocabulary.

Why does he imagine that Kantians and utilitarians are committed to believing that? As far as I can tell, it is because he assumes, without explicitly saying so, that if you believe that there are moral truths (that is, reject moral nihilism) you have only two options: either to posit language-transcendent entities for those truths to correspond to, or to embrace a pragmatist doctrine he proceeds to put forward – a variant of the conception of truth as warranted assertibility. According to Stout, all there is to explain about the concept of truth is explained by the fact that ‘truth, for us, here and now, is always warranted assertibility.’ Unlike less sophisticated pragmatists, however, he denies that truth can be formally defined as warranted assertibility. It would be better, he submits, to have no theoretical definition of it at all. Since all Kantians and utilitarians known to me reject this variant of pragmatism, if he is right about their options, they can do no other than posit language-transcendent entities.

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