Applied Ethics, Moral Skepticism, and Reasons with Expiration Dates
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Applied Ethics, Moral Skepticism, and Reasons with Expiration Dates

The question "Why be moral?" has been on philosophers' agendas at least since Plato, and the antiquity of the Question (which is what I'll call it from here on out) reasonably prompts the suspicion that moral skepticism may not in the end be rebuttable. Haven't we waited long enough? Isn't it time to discard the pretense that we have reason to do what morality demands? And shouldn't we finally stop wasting our time on it?

Before buying into that conclusion, I want to point out a largely untapped source of reasons for being moral. It has been overlooked, I will suggest, in part because attention has been exclusively directed to providing a definitive refutation of moral skepticism. However, that fixation is attributable to a very basic error about what sort of creatures we are. Most of our reasons come with expiration dates; and, indeed, the Question is often answerable, but temporarily rather than definitively.

I will suggest that one category of less-than-eternal answers to the Question should receive more attention than it has. Instead of addressing ourselves to the cynical huckster who wants to know what's in it for him, we should be responding to, for example, the businessman who understands loyalizing potential whistleblowers to be his responsibility. By way of defusing one source of resistance to my proposal, I [End Page 263] will advance – but not properly argue for – two further hypotheses: that a central function of morality has the consequence that we should expect justifications of morality to be less-than-eternal generally, and that the cognitive repertoire available to support some such answers may make them quite short-lived.

I hope to indicate how periodically replenishing our supply of answers to the Question is an activity in which moral philosophers might engage. I will conclude with a suggestion as to which sort of moral philosopher is best equipped for the job. The most concrete, satisfying and socially important answers are likely to come from the applied ethicists.

1.

If a question is not to be hollow, it must be posed in a way that determines what would count as an answer.2 When the question is of what someone has reason to do, it will thus invoke standards, priorities, and guidelines. I mean these notions as placeholders, and, so far, all I want to register about them is that, although they are used to assess choice and action, I haven't yet introduced assumptions about their structure and content. In particular, we should not assume that they must be, formally, goals or ends or desires.

The Question, accordingly, must be asked so as to pick out, tacitly or explicitly, a system of standards, priorities, and guidelines that fixes what would count as an appropriate answer to it. Call that the Question's platform; I am going to assume (disregarding Prichard3) that platforms from which we ask the Question are at some suitable distance from morality. If the standards, priorities, and guidelines we invoke are just those of morality, then the Question, voiced in a suitably skeptical tone, amounts to wondering whether morality is [End Page 264] self-refuting.4 And while the reflexive platform is a perfectly reasonable special case to take under consideration, here I am going to put that version of the Question to one side.

From what other platforms can the Question be launched? Moral philosophers of our tradition have considered, among others, one's self-interest or one's well-being, the desires or preferences one happens antecedently to have, and forms of practical consistency demanded by a highly purified rationality. But the traditional inventory of philosophers' standards is not an exhaustive list of available platforms. It scarcely needs mention that instead of asking the egoist's question, of why he should be moral, one could ask why one's clan, or country, or religion should sacrifice its interests in favour of the demands of morality. It seems to me that a further and important class of platforms has been overlooked. To identify them, let's cut to a panoramic shot of humanity...