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  • Impartial Attractiveness as a Moral Test
  • Karol Edward Soltan (bio)

How should we modify our systematic thinking about moral questions in order to achieve the following two goals?

  1. 1. Bring it in closer alignment with the modern scientific spirit, as it is understood today, not as it was understood in 17th or 18th century (no self evident moral truths as axioms, for example) and not as it was understood in 13th century either (no return to Aristotle or to Saint Thomas Aquinas).

  2. 2. Make systematic moral thinking as helpful as it can be in improving the world. Certainly it would then have to have normative force, and it would need to pay attention to the problem of motivation, and to possible supporting institutional instruments, such as the courts of law, or self-limiting social movements.

This is the problem I would like to address in this essay.

My suggestions are: first, help develop empirical normative ethics, (this is now done, for example, as part of the new experimental philosophy); and, second, adopt the project of "impartial attractiveness as a moral test," as part of this empirical normative ethics. I further suggest an interpretation of attractiveness that mixes emotion and cognition, so that moral judgments are not purely cognitive, and our concern is with attracting loyalties, and not simply attracting beliefs. [End Page 281]

The project of impartial attractiveness as a moral test needs elaboration at a number of levels. It should consist of at least four activities.

  1. 1. We need to describe the test of impartial attractiveness in its ideal form, and contrast it with alternative methods of moral theory, such as the method of reflective equilibrium, or the test of agreement under ideal circumstances.

  2. 2. We need to describe various empirical tests and empirical procedures that can approximate this ideal test, so we can actually study impartial attractiveness.

  3. 3. We need to develop a theory of this test. Why should this be the moral test? On what grounds could we replace it with a better test?

  4. 4. We need to develop research programs, and hypotheses within those programs, using the test of impartial attractiveness.

In this essay I sketch these four elements of the project.

The impartial attractiveness research program is distinctive in two ways. First, it is an empirical program, although like any worthwhile empirical program it has room for conceptual elaboration, theory development, and speculative components. Second, its empirical interest lies not in studying moral judgments or moral beliefs, but rather studying a certain type of changes in moral judgments and beliefs (those caused by the impartial force of reasons for action, in one formulation).

In empirical normative ethics we can identify two fundamentally different approaches: some study moral beliefs and moral judgments; others study changes in those beliefs, under the influence of a distinctive type of ideas. The first group can think of themselves as studying an aspect of the human mind. The second group studies instead an aspect of the interaction of human minds.

I outline a project which belongs to this second group, and in which the test of attractiveness is formulated to make it as helpful as possible in making the world better. The empirical research program must produce normative guidance for our actions. It must be part of empirical normative ethics, with the normative emphasized. The practical effect is crucial. We do not want to interpret the world differently (or at least that is not the only thing we want to do), we want to make it better.

[End Page 282]

This preoccupation with practice supports the addition of two features that lead to unexpected results. First, our concern is with ideas supportive of human projects, a category broader than the more conventional concern with reasons for action. More importantly for the present essay, our concern is with motivation as well as justification, with emotion as well as cognition, with passion as well as reason.

In ancient China an important debate pitted Confucians against Moists. The debate was complex, and there were many issues. But one seemed central. Moists argued for the promotion of universal love. Confucians countered that this was motivationally unrealistic, and developed an alternative based on...


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