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The Good Society 11.2 (2002) 22-26

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Empirical Approaches to Normative Thinking

Attractiveness and Empirical Normative Ethics

Karol Edward Soltan

Empirical normative ethics faces deep prejudices both within empirical social science and within non-empirical normative ethics. And it has a far from glorious history (now mostly forgotten) of failure. Who remembers today Durkheim's unfinished work on La Morale, or Sorokin's work on creative altruism? But empirical normative ethics now shows signs of serious intellectual life and growing internal diversity. It is tempting to write a survey of the different approaches now being developed. But I will resist temptation and let others speak for themselves. I will sketch instead one line of thought, which uses attractiveness as an indicator of the goodness of ends, develops a methodology for the study of attractiveness, and uses that methodology to study what contributes to the goodness of ends.

One key task of moral theory is to identify and describe good ends. Another task is to identify and describe the different ways in which our conception of good ends can be used in the evaluation of actions and institutions. Many of the more prominent controversies in ethics center around different possible answers to the latter question.

According to one view, the rightness of actions depends on goodness of consequences, or on the degree to which the action promotes (helps us achieve) good ends. This is the familiar consequentialist view, exemplified by the various forms of utilitarianism. According to another view, some actions are (to a degree, or in part) ends in themselves. They are right to the degree they are good ends. Or, alternatively, we can have a situation like that exemplified by Rawls's pure procedural justice: An action is right to the extent it follows a certain method, and its consequences, whatever they may be, are made good by being the product of that method.

Finally, the good end may be some feature of an agent's character, a virtue. It may be specific to some sphere of activity (as courage is) or more general (maturity may be an example). An action is right either if it brings about greater maturity (which is the consequentialist evaluation), or because it is mature. In the latter case the action is a sign of, and a part of, some good end.

For the present, my aim is to avoid the controversies between these different views of how good ends enter into our evaluation of actions by sticking to the question of what makes ends good. This will involve enough controversies of its own. How indeed can we identify and describe good ends? How can we study, more generally, what contributes to the goodness of ends?

To this question I propose an answer with a strong empirical component, which allows us to say that the goodness of ends is discovered, and in a manner not radically different from discovery elsewhere in the sciences, combining theoretical speculation with observational and experimental tests. The view that good ends are to be discovered has been traditionally defended by the natural law tradition. So if you need to locate my proposal in intellectual terrain, think of it as natural law with a scientific twist.

But it is hard to squeeze normative conclusions out of purely descriptive premises. It may be impossible to do so. And I don't suggest doing any such thing. I rely rather on the normative claim that goodness of ends implies their objective attractiveness, or that the strength of attractiveness is a reliable indicator of goodness. And attractiveness is an empirical property of ends, even if it is difficult to study (largely because attractiveness is not the same thing as felt attractiveness).

The central moral thesis of the approach I propose is that better ends and ideals are more objective and have greater power. They are marked by greater capacity to attract minds, or capacity to generate consent, or persuasive capacity, or legitimating capacity, or—most simply—greater attractiveness. The basic thesis can be put briefly: GOOD ENDS ARE OBJECTIVELY ATTRACTIVE FORCES. And objective attractiveness...


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