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  • Who Are Moral Philosophers?Ethics William James Style
  • Todd Lekan

many of william james's ethical writings celebrate appreciation and respect for diverse ways of life. For example, in the essay "On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings" (OCBH, hereafter), James argues that it is a worthy endeavor to strive to overcome blindness to alien values in order to appreciate their rich diversity. In the essay "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life" (MPML, hereafter), he defends an inclusivity principle (IP) enjoining us to create a world that allows for the greatest diversity of ideals and demand satisfaction. James writes:

Since everything which is demanded is by that fact a good, must not the guiding principle for ethical philosophy (since all demands conjointly cannot be satisfied in this poor world) be simply to satisfy at all times as many demands as we can? That act must be the best act, accordingly, which makes for the best whole, in the sense of awakening the least dissatisfactions. In the casuistic scale, therefore, those ideals must be written highest which prevail at the least cost, or by whose realization the least possible number of other ideals are destroyed.

(MPML 155)

James's argument goes like this: Given that we have obligations to satisfy demands, and given that the essence of good is demand satisfaction—it is reasonable to conclude that our moral obligation is to satisfy as many demands as possible. Since humans create ideals that provide overarching significance to their lives, James formulates the normative conclusion so that it applies to both ideals and demands. Call this James's meta-ethical argument, since it moves from claims about the nature of value to a normative conclusion (IP).

  1. 1. The essence of the good is demand satisfaction (including the demand for ideals to be realized). [End Page 81]

  2. 2. There are prima facie moral obligations to satisfy demands to respect the realization of diverse ideals.

  3. 3. Demands and ideals conflict such that they cannot all be conjointly satisfied or realized.

  4. 4. The moral philosopher demands an impartial method for resolving such conflicts.

  5. 5. The inclusivity principle best satisfies the moral philosopher's demand.

Aiken and Talisse challenge James's ethics by arguing that the value pluralism expressed in "1" and "2" does not entail tolerance any more than it does intolerance. After all, among the diversity of ideals are those of the dogmatic fundamentalist who might emphatically reject tolerance, especially toward what she regards as false values. On what normative basis can James's moral philosophy condemn such intolerant demands? The prospect for answers to this question looks dim, given James's own claim that every demand is, at least prima facie, valid.

James's ethics can meet Aiken and Talisse's challenge, however, not in the terms in which they pose it. It is crucial to see that for James, moral values—including very general ideals like IP—are not derived from more fundamental theoretical premises supplied by moral theory. Rather, James formulates ideas about moral obligation from what Seigfried (William James's Radical 75–97) rightly calls a starting point in "concrete experience." In many of his writings, particularly the ethical, James does not just talk about concrete experience, but rather he dramatically renders it. His meta-ethical argument needs to be embedded within this broader rendering of moral experience.

In what follows, I propose to read MPML alongside James's relational account of the self and the insights offered in OCBH. The latter offers a phenomenological rendering of a special kind of experiential shift that occurs when people awaken to others' alien ideals. The experiential approach offered in OCBH, when supplemented by James's relational account of the self, provides powerful presuppositions of the meta-ethical argument in MPML. Section I examines James's understanding of the moral philosopher's perspective. Although James does a good job in showing how this perspective offers a sharp rebuke of traditional moral philosophy's preoccupation with demonstrating other-regarding obligations to an egoist skeptic, his meta-ethical argument for inclusivity seems vulnerable to the sort of skeptical doubts raised by Aiken and Talisse's intolerant fundamentalist. Section II lays out those doubts. Section...


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