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Joseph Margolis THE OPTIONS OF CONTEMPORARY ETHICAL THEORY It may be said, with some prospect ofbeing not altogether idiotic, that the global philosophical question ofour age concerns the possibility of legitimating the conceptual grounds for legitimating claims about anything . The formulation has no interest in the abstract. It merely registers the possibility of an infinite regress; and in that form it has been with us forever. But our own world has inexorably subverted all the standard forms of confidence regarding legitimation—not so much perhaps by intellectual confrontation as, more indirectly, by coming to believe the deep contingencies of human history, by discovering again and again the astounding diversity of actual human societies, by reflecting on the incompletely managed self-manipulation of our immense technology, by the natural fear entailed in the growing chaos of the entire terrestrial world we mean to put into serviceable order. These considerations are certainly local to moral theorizing. But since they have a general currency as well, they lead us to suppose that speculations about legitimizing moral claims cannot be more satisfactory than those of philosophy in general, though they may be weaker. This, in its turn, encourages us to imagine that a reduced assessment of the larger claims of philosophy may conveniendy justify a greater respect for the inherendy modest prospects ofmoral theorizing. Furthermore, the characteristic triple thinking of our age, always incipient in any reflexive appraisal of cognitive powers, has been raised to a particularly fine art — if that is the right term. It is quite impossible nowadays, unless by a confidence or innocence bordering on the Martian, simply to proclaim the principles or grounds or foundations of moral judgment and moral commitment. Nevertheless, what one cannot help noticing is that wher37 38Philosophy and Literature ever theorists are morally serious — and they seem never more serious than when they are theorizing about morality— they are understandably inclined to believe that they absolutely must give some sense of the accessibility of reliable and valid grounds for judgments and commitments of the most important sorts. In yielding to that touching obligation to serve others in the capacity of philosopher, however, they usually yield as well in the direction ofinsinuating— ifnot openly announcing— what their own sense of professional history would otherwise have readily shown to be in desperate need of a smidgen of support. Notably in the last generation, the retreat from older forms of confidence , in moral philosophy, in philosophy in general, and in all those intellectual disciplines either pleased or displeased to be linked to the fate of philosophy, has decidedly accelerated. There is no resisting the current , though that is hardly to say we understand its implications or are obliged to subscribe to its madder exemplars. But when, to take a counter-specimen from the Anglo-American tradition of the last decade, a moral philosopher like Alan Donagan attempts to restore something like the Kantian moral system, we sense its unlikely and alien body even before we prepare our instruments for the required dissection. Thus, Donagan, who can hardly be accused of failing to sustain a most humane document, speaks at the beginning of The Theory ofMorality of his having been persuaded — by George Orwell and others — "that any acceptable form of social order, whether socialist or not, must rest on moral foundations, which are in principle ascertainable at any period, and permanendy valid."1 Donagan had hoped to recover in a compelling way the "common morality" of mankind, the rationally accessible portion of the Biblical tradition, presumably congruent with the classical tradition, ordered in a conceptually convincing way for the first time by Immanuel Kant reflecting, apparently, on his own Pietist upbringing. Donagan is, of course, among other things, a careful student of R. G. Collingwood's work, and here may be thought to exhibit Collingwood's confidence that the historian is capable, under favorable conditions, of "reenacting" at any period the motivating thought of effective historical agents of the past.2 At any rate, Donagan is quite explicit that: (a) social orders must have moral foundations or first principles; (b) social orders do have such moral foundations; (c) those foundations are ascertainable; (d) they are ascertainable in principle at...


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