Recent Developments

Twentieth-century philosophical ethics bears the imprint of much of the history of the discipline, and many of the more current, prominent approaches to the subject represent developments of historically important views. But earlier in the twentieth century, ethics, at least in Britain and in the United States, veered away from its past in the direction of what has come to be called metaethics. The move toward metaethics and away from traditional ethical theory resulted, in part, from the influence of a school of philosophy called logical positivism. The positivists held up experimentally verifiable science as the paradigm of cognitively meaningful discourse and claimed that any statement that was not empirically confirmable or mathematically demonstrable lacked real content. Since it is difficult to see how moral principles can be experimentally verified or mathematically proved, many positivist ethicists began to think of ethical claims as cognitively meaningless and refused to advance substantive moral views, turning instead to the analysis of ethical terms and ethical claims. Issues about the meaning of moral terms have a long history in philosophical ethics, but the idea that these metaethical tasks were the main task of philosophical ethics gained a prevalence in the early years of the twentieth century that it had never previously had.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, substantive or normative ethics (that is, ethics making real value judgments rather than simply analyzing such judgments) once again came to the fore and tended to displace metaethics as the center of interest in ethics. In particular, there was a resurgence of interest in Kantian ethics and utilitarianism, followed by a renewal of interest in the kind of virtue ethics that dominated the philosophical landscape of ancient philosophy.

The revival and further development of Kantian ethics received its principal impetus from John Rawls and younger philosophers influenced by him. Rawls's principal work, A Theory of Justice (1971) represents a sustained attack on utilitarianism and seeks to base its own positive conception of morality and social justice on an understanding of Kant's ethics that bypasses the controversial metaphysical assumptions Kant was thought to have made about absolute human freedom and rationality. Other Kantian ethicists (Christine Korsgaard, Onora O'Neill, and Barbara Herman), however, have sought to be somewhat truer to the historical Kant while developing Kant's doctrines in directions fruitful for contemporary ethical theorizing.

Meanwhile, the utilitarians responded to Rawls's critique with reinvigorated forms of their doctrine, and, in particular, Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons (1984) seeks to advance the utilitarian tradition of ethical theory within a philosophical perspective that fully takes into account the insights of the Rawlsian approach.

Finally, virtue ethics has been undergoing a considerable revival. In a 1958 article, Elizabeth Anscombe argued that notions like moral obligation are bankrupt without the assumption of God (or someone else) as a lawgiver, whereas concepts of character excellence or virtue and of human flourishing can arise, without such assumptions, from within a properly conceived moral psychology. This challenge was taken up by philosophers interested in exploring the possibility that the notions of good character and motivation and of living well may be primary in ethics, with notions like right, wrong, and obligation taking a secondary or derivative place or perhaps even dropping out altogether. Such virtue ethics does not, however, abandon ethics' traditional task of telling us how to live, since, in fact, ideals of good character and motivation can naturally lead to views about how it is best to treat others and to promote our own character and happiness. Rather, the newer virtue ethics sought to learn from the virtue ethics of the ancient world, especially of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, while making those lessons relevant to a climate of ethical theory that incorporates what has been learned in the long interval since ancient times.

More recently, however, a radical kind of virtue ethics without precedent in the ancient world has developed out of feminist thought and in the wake of Carol Gilligan's groundbreaking In a Different Voice (1982). Gilligan argued that men tend to conceive of morality in terms of rights, justice, and autonomy, whereas women more frequently think of morality in terms of caring, responsibility, and interrelation with others. And at about the same time as Gilligan wrote, Nel Noddings in Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (1984) articulated and defended the idea of a feminine morality centered on caring.

The ideal of caring Noddings has in mind is particularistic: It is not the universally directed benevolence of the sort utilitarianism sometimes appeals to, but rather caring for certain particular people (e.g., one's friends and family) that she treats as the morally highest and best motivation. Actions then count as good or bad, better or worse, to the extent that they exhibit this kind of caring. Clearly, Nod-ding's view offers a potential answer to the traditional question of how one should live, but since the answer seems to be based on fundamental assumptions about what sorts of inner motivation are morally good or bad, it is a form of virtue ethics. Of course, her view can be stated in terms of the principle "Be caring and act caringly." But if we focus on conforming to the principle instead of on the needs of the individuals we care about, we risk falling short of what the principle itself recommends. It is the state or process of sensitive caring, rather than attention to principle, that generates what Noddings would take to be satisfying answers to moral questions and appropriate responses to particular situations.

Enriched by such feminine/feminist possibilities, ethical theory has been actively and fertilely involved with the perennial task(s) of ethics. But because few of the traditional questions have been answered to the satisfaction of all philosophers, one may well wonder whether philosophy will ever be able fully to answer those questions or even whether philosophers have, over the centuries, made real or sufficient progress in dealing with them. But it is also possible to attack the tradition(s) of philosophical ethics in a more radical fashion.

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