Rationalism

One possible avenue around the prescriptivist/naturalist impasse would be to repudiate the naturalistic fallacy, yet insist that moral principles are justified by examining the nature of rationality itself. This sort of moral epistemology owes much to Kant. A number of notable philosophers, inspired by Kant yet eager to avoid his dubious treatment of the self, have endeavored to ground moral knowledge in the reflective exercise of reason by actual human agents.

The most ambitious of these attempts is clearly that of Alan Gewirth, who in Reason and Morality tries to prove the fundamental principle of morality by analyzing the bare concept of rational agency. Every rational agent, Gewirth argues, must presuppose certain generic goods—namely, freedom and a degree of well-being—that make the exercise of his or her agency possible. If the agent must claim these generic goods as necessary, he or she must also claim them as rights. But since these goods flow from the generic features of agency, he or she must also concede that all other agents must claim them as rights, and that there is a corresponding obligation to acknowledge and respect them. Hence, the Principle of Generic Consistency (PGC)—"Act in accord with the generic rights of your recipients as well as yourself" (1978, p. 135)—is the fundamental, categorical principle of morality, from which all other concrete moral norms and precepts can be derived, and which can be denied only on pain of logical self-contradiction.

Many of Gewirth's critics (e.g., Nielsen; Maclntyre, 1984; Arrington) have questioned a crucial move in his dialectical "proof" of the PGC: Acknowledging that there exist necessary goods of rational agency need not entail recognizing them as one's rights. If these critics are correct, Gewirth's foundational moral principle is not necessarily true. If it is only contingently true, Gewirth's claim to a proof of the one fundamental principle of morality has not been vindicated.

In contrast to Gewirth's "hard" rationalism, other moral rationalists adopt a "soft" rationalism that proceeds not from unassailable premises about rational agency, but from contingent truths about what all rational agents would, in fact, choose under ideal conditions. For example, John Rawls, in A Theory of Justice (1971), maintains that in a hypothetical "original position," where the specific identities, desires, and advantages of rational agents are deliberately obscured behind a perspective of impartiality—a "veil of ignorance"—rational agreement would be secured regarding two specific principles of justice, equal liberty and equal distribution of goods, except in those cases where an unequal distribution of goods would work to the benefit of the worst-off social group.

"Soft" rationalism proceeds from assumptions about the rational choices individuals would make in imagined, empirical situations; thus it lends itself well to concrete application in such fields as legal, business, and medical ethics. For example, Robert M. Veatch, in A Theory of Medical Ethics (1981), argues that the responsibilities of medical professionals are set in an implicit "triple contract" involving those professionals, their patients, and society at large; specifically, medical rights and obligations are fixed by determining what sorts of agreements would be rational for all three interested parties to agree upon.

There are serious difficulties with these "soft" forms of moral rationalism. Rawls's "original position" suggests that individuals could and should be able to abstract themselves from their specific, contingent identities when formulating and justifying the principles of justice. But, as Michael Sandel (1982) and Charles Taylor (1985) have argued, this project faces formidable epistemological difficulties. It presupposes that "the self" is prior to its ends, that one's identity as a pure, rational chooser is separable from and more basic than one's identity as, say, an American, a Christian, a physician, and so on—and that it can and must draw upon rational resources that are neutral with respect to the ends and desires connected with these identities. Yet it is questionable whether such an "unencumbered" self would have any rational resources upon which to draw or any concrete intentions upon which to act; whether, indeed, the contracting chooser in the "original position" could ever be more than a philosophical fiction. Thus it seems as if moral rationalism—if it is to remain on epistemologically solid ground—must compromise its purity by admitting that the contingencies of time, place, and personal identity do make at least some difference in determining which choices and which sets of moral beliefs will be accepted as rational.

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