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Richard Eldridge ON KNOWING HOW TO LIVE: COLERIDGE'S "FROST AT MIDNIGHT" How ought human beings to live? It is both hard to ignore this question and hard to see how to go about answering it rationally. Moral philosophers have typically presented their works as deserving serious attention because they have supposed them to contain well-argued answers to this question. One very general way of describing the strategy of moral philosophers is to say that they have begun by attempting to specify precisely the sense of "ought" as it is used in this question. Thus "ought" has alternately been taken to mean such things as "would it be profitable for," "in society is it necessary for," "it is typical of ideal," and "would it be rational for." In concert, moral philosophy has alternately been conceived of as a part of a theory of happiness , a theory of civil society, a theory of perfection, or a theory of rationality. But which, if any, of these ways of doing moral philosophy is the correct one? The very proliferation of approaches and answers to the question of how human beings ought to live encourages a kind of despair about whether any rules of conduct can be rationally justified for people in general. Noticing this proliferation , philosophers of a skeptical cast of mind have denied that any rules about how human beings ought to live can be rationally defended. AU putative rational defenses of such rules, so it has been claimed, amount to nothing more than pieces of cant and dogma. Reflecting this intuition, "moralistic" has come sometimes to mean "priggishly preachy." Thus Richard Rorty has observed that "the attempt to answer . . . the moral agent's request for justifications [of answers to such questions as "What ought we to do with ourselves?" and "How ought we to live?"] with descriptions of a privileged domain [wherein such justifications can be discovered] is the philosopher's special form of bad faith — his special way of substituting pseudo-cognition for morad choice."1 Moral philosophers, or those who would attempt rationally to defend rules about how to live, so Rorty would apparently have it, talk not good scientific sense auid not liberating or entertaining poetic nonsense, but pure humbug. (Rorty adds that "the positivists were absolutely right in thinking it imperative to 213 214Philosophy and Literature extirpate metaphysics, when 'metaphysics' means die attempt to give knowledge of what science cannot know.") We are urged to take a pragmatic attitude toward moral rules. AU diere is to know about rules about how to live is that sometimes some people have made them up and found them useful, not that any of diem have any deeper rational basis. "[T]he claim that the customs of a given society are 'grounded in nature' is not one which [the pragmatist] knows how to argue about. He is a pragmatist because he catnnot see what it would be like for a custom to be so grounded."2 Rorty does not claim that naturalistic talk or the talk of what he calls "atoms-in-the-void science" is die only sensible kind of talk. The remarks of sociologists, psychoanalysts, critics, and so forth are not senseless, according to Rorty. But he does hold diat traditional philosophical talk of knowing morad rules through reflection or reasoning is senseless. The reason for diis is diat no one has ever succeeded in giving "ought" a clear sense in such a way that amy claims of the form "human beings ought to do *" can be rationally justified to everyone. Failing to possess incontrovertibly sound demonstrative arguments for claims diat all human beings ought to adopt certain rules of conduct and failing to possess a mediod, or even a glimmer of a mediod, for constructing such arguments, it may well seem difficult not to feel compelled to adopt Rorty's skeptical attitude toward moral philosophy. Rorty's attitude is not extraordinary ; it is increasingly shared by a public which fails to find in works of moral philosophy the sort of rational defense of rules about how to live which it has been promised. What form could a rational justification of a claim of die form "human beings...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 213-228
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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