TV programmes on fashions in dress over the centuries are common. There have been similar programmes on changing styles of dancing, cookery and even castle-building. I doubt very much if a series on changing styles in philosophy would do very much for BBC audience ratings. Nevertheless, philosophers, who see themselves as the distillation of undiluted rationality, are as prone to fashion as anyone else.
While it is true that the word 'philosophy' is a combination of two Greek words and means a 'lover of wisdom', I don't think that philosophers in the Western world have done much searching for wisdom. Philosophy as a search for wisdom or 'enlightenment' (whatever that may be) is more characteristic of Eastern philosophy. Names such as Confucius or Buddha come to mind.
There is a story (and I am not sure I have the correct attribution) that one of the disciples of Confucius came to him and reported that another Master had instructed his disciples to think three times before they spoke. Confucius was silent for a moment and then he said: Twice would be enough. That seems to me to be pretty good advice – be cautious but not over-cautious. But it is too directly practical to be the sort of advice you would get from a Western philosopher. Indeed, you would not get any directly practical advice at all from a Western philosopher. Nevertheless, as I shall suggest, there can be indirect practical implications of Western philosophy, especially moral philosophy.
The fashion in moral philosophy (or ethics) in the first half of the 20th century was to accept two assumptions. They were: that anything which is strictly philosophical must be sharply distinguished from what is 'factual', 'descriptive' or generally of an empirical nature; and that philosophy must be morally neutral. It was common for philosophical debate to be cut short by the feared accusation: 'That's just not philosophy!' But throughout the 1960s, the fashion began to change, and both assumptions were contested.
For example, it was argued that there is not a world of brute fact out there, that our concepts determine our conceptions of what 'the facts' are thought to be. Again, it was argued that philosophy cannot, perhaps even that it logically cannot, be morally neutral because the language we use in describing or stating something necessarily implies a set of values. There was a parallel debate in social science concerned with whether there could be a value-neutral social science.
The weakening of the power of the two assumptions made it possible for at least some philosophers to turn their attention to the problems which might arise in human activities other than philosophy itself. In other words, fashions, in moral philosophy at least, began to change. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, RS Peters made a large contribution to the field of education and his philosophy had many practical consequences in the curriculum structure of teacher training colleges and so on.
The 1970s saw the beginnings in the UK of medical ethics, a movement inspired by the already flourishing movement in the USA. Professor Sheila McLean at Glasgow University and Professor Alexander McCall Smith at Edinburgh made distinguished contributions to the movement. Nowadays, we find a whole range of activities sometimes called 'applied philosophy', which discuss the environment, the treatment of animals, the problems of engineering, business, public policy and so on. This suggests that even if philosophers are unable to provide wisdom, their theories can have practical implications. How does this work?
Theories in moral philosophy or ethics can be divided into two broad and overlapping categories, often distinguished as 'meta-ethical theories' and 'normative ethical theories'.
Meta-ethical theories are concerned (for example) with questions of the logical classification of moral judgements. Are they like statements of fact? Or like commands? Or like expressions of emotion? For example, consider the judgement: 'That is morally wrong!' Is its logic more like 'That is coloured green' or more like 'Don't do that!' or more like 'Ugh!'?
In other words, meta-ethical theories consider whether there are moral qualities out there in the nature of things like colours and, if so, what such qualities are like; or whether it is more plausible to view moral judgements as some sort of human reaction to events and properties in the world and if so what such responses are like. Theories of that kind have nothing to say about what we ought to do.
Normative ethical theories, on the other hand, attempt to answer questions such as: What makes right actions right? Or: What makes actions duties? Or: What is the nature of justice? The aim of such theories is that of finding the very general principles or criteria, if any exist, which underlie the many particular judgements we make in everyday and professional life.
In short, the purpose of normative theories is to unify complex particular judgements by showing what they have in common. It is normative ethical theories, rather than meta-ethical theories, which have been of interest in applied philosophy. But there is a further distinction which must be drawn, even if we concentrate solely on normative ethical theories.
Normative ethical theories, from Plato (5th century BC) to the present, split into two kinds. Many of them make recommendations as to how we ought to see right action or justice. It is common for these ethical recommendations to be placed in a much larger narrative about the nature of human beings and their life in society.
An outstanding example of this approach is Plato's Republic
, but there are many other examples such as the writings of Jeremy Bentham or Karl Marx in the 19th century, or Peter Singer in the 20th century. We shall call this type of theory 'strongly normative' in that it is recommending how we ought to live and view the good life. There is often a dominant strain of the reformer in such philosophers.
But there is a second type of normative ethical theory. Philosophers who adopt this approach are not so much telling us how we ought to live as attempting to encapsulate in a theory how we do in fact see the moral life. They will invite us to consider the many ethical judgements of right and wrong we make in everyday or professional life and they will suggest what in fact they have in common. Theories of this kind do not set out to improve our ethical behaviour but rather to give us a better understanding of ethics. They are concerned with norms in the sense that norms (rules, principles, virtues) are their subject-matter.
The second approach is more typical of the contemporary scene in moral philosophy. It encourages us to reflect on the general nature of ethics (norms), whereas the first (strongly normative approach) encourages us to improve our conduct along the lines recommended by the normative theory. There is not a sharp distinction between the two types of normative ethical theory – perhaps they are more tendencies within theories than types of theory. Certainly, philosophers often move from one to the other without even noticing.
What can such theories achieve? They are not of much help to anyone facing a specific ethical problem. What they can do is to broaden our moral outlook and bring out that there are several ways of looking at morality. The awareness of different perspectives leads to a deeper understanding of the complex nature of morality and makes for toleration of other perspectives.
At different periods in the 20th century, fashions influenced the emphasis which moral philosophers have placed on the the more theoretical and the more practical approach to moral philosophy. But other factors have played a part also. For example, prominent figures have dominated what in their opinion counts as philosophy; the same prominent figures determine what is published in the prestigious journals. The journal Mind
became the Vogue
of philosophical fashion.
More recently, what was known as the Research Assessment Exercise affected what counts as good philosophy. Articles were assessed for their merit by committees of the prominent figures who had themselves positions in prominent universities, and who had published in or edited the prestigious journals.
I know of a prominent Scottish philosopher who had submitted an article to Mind
. It was returned by the editor with the comment that there is now an agreed method in philosophy. That is as plausible as saying that there is now an agreed hairstyle.
Robin Downie is Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow