De-Moralizing Ethical Theory

ACU Rome Seminar Series


Convenors: Roger Crisp (Oxford/ACU), Tyler Paytas (ACU), and Richard Rowland (ACU)


01 October 2019

End Date

03 October 2019


ACU Rome Campus
Australian Catholic University
Via Garibaldi, 28, 00153 Roma, Italy

Debates within modern ethical theory have typically centered on questions of moral wrongness, duty, and permissibility. Competing theories such as contractualism, Kantianism, and consequentialism seek primarily to explain the nature and scope of moral obligation. Despite the influence of this framework, philosophers have begun to challenge its legitimacy on multiple fronts. Inspired by writers such as Elizabeth Anscombe (1958) and Bernard Williams (1985), proponents of virtue ethics claim that our central ethical inquiries are best answered by focusing on character and virtue rather than duty and obligation. This approach is motivated in part by skepticism about moral concepts that gained a foothold through historical contingencies such as the influence of political and ecclesiastical institutions.

More recently, philosophers working within the consequentialist tradition have advocated the jettisoning of concepts like ‘wrong’ and ‘requirement’ from ethical theory. Roger Crisp (2006; 2015) argues that fundamental practical questions are best answered in terms of ultimate reasons, and that talk of permissions and requirements is unnecessary and liable to cause confusion. Further, these concepts have ties to evolved reactive attitudes that are an unreliable guide to ethical truth. Meanwhile, proponents of scalar consequentialism (Norcross 2006; forthcoming; Sinhababu 2017) argue that eschewing talk of obligation is necessary to avoid the implausible implication that failing to maximize the impartial good renders one blameworthy. Additionally, the category of the permissible must be discarded because any proposed threshold for permissibility will be unacceptably arbitrary.

Others have argued that eliminating moral concepts, and mitigating the importance of the reactive attitudes, severely impoverishes ethical theory. These philosophers maintain that reactive attitudes, including blame, anger, guilt, and shame, are of key importance to understanding the nature of morality and to appreciating important values such as friendship and virtue.

If ethics should be de-moralized, this may have the surprising benefit of ameliorating ethical skepticism arising from the lack of consensus among moral philosophers. As Derek Parfit observed, the relation between non-moral ethical views and traditional moral theories “raises some important and little discussed questions,” and shifting our attention to these views may help to resolve some long-standing disagreements (2015: 21). The aim of this seminar is to make progress on this score by bringing together top specialists from around the world to present and discuss cutting-edge research on the role of distinctively moral concepts. This will include those who advocate ‘de-moralizing’ as well as critics of this approach. Since this topic cuts across several sub-areas and traditions, we will have diverse representation including leading experts on consequentialism, Kantianism, virtue ethics, metaethics, moral psychology, and the history of ethics.

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