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Monday, October 15, 2007

Nussbaum's ethical theory

The previous post reminded me of this Nussbaum quote. Is this in line with Rawls? I guess they aren't quite attempting to answer the same questions.

The conception of ethical theory on which I rely, as I base this philosophical inquiry on the exegesis of historical texts, is, roughly, an Aristotelian one [...] It holds that ethical theorizing proceeds by way of a reflective dialogue between the intuitions and beliefs of the interlocutor, or reader, and a series of complex ethical conceptions, presented for exploration. (This series, as Aristotle puts it, should ideally include the views of both 'the many' and 'the wise'.) Such an inquiry cannot get started without readers or interlocutors who are already brought up as people of a certain sort. Its aim is to arrive at an account of the values and judgements of people who already have definite attachements and intuitions; these must, ultimately, be the material of the inquiry. And yet this does not mean that the outcome of the inquiry will be a mere repetition of the account of his or her view that the reader would have given at the start. For, as Aristotle stresses (and as Socrates showed before him), most people, when asked to generalize, make claims that are false to the complexity and the content of their actual beliefs. They need to learn what they really think. When, through work on the alternatives and through dialog with one another, they have arrived at a harmonious adjustment of their beliefs, both singly and in community with one another, this will be the ethical truth, on the Aristotelian understanding of truth: a truth that is anthropocentric, but not relativistic.* (In practice the search for truth is rarely complete or thorough enough; so the resulting view will just be the best current candidate for truth.) To bridge the gap between belief and theory, it is frequently valuable to work from texts, leading the interlocutor through an elucidation and assessment of someone else's complex position – or, better, of several alternative positions – on the problem in question. This gives a degree of detachment from our theoretical prejudices; and if we make our selection of texts carefully enough we can hope to have explored the major alternatives.


*[footnote from text] Both Aristotle and Socrates believe that the best articulation of each individuals internal system of beliefs will also be an account shared by all individuals who are capable of seriously pursuing the search for truth. This is so because they believe that the outstanding obstacles to communal agreement are deficiencies in judgment and reflection; if we are each led singly through the best procedures of practical choice, we will turn out to agree on the most important matters, in ethics as in science. I believe that this position is substantially correct. Although I shall not argue directly for it here, examples of the method at work and further discussions of the method as Aristotle defends it should show its force. Difficulties arising from disagreement concerning 'the best procedures of practical choice' and the threat of circularity these generate are discussed further in chapters 5 and 10. [emphasis my own]


Nussbaum, Martha C. The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tradgedy and Philosophy. New York: Cambridge UP, 1986. 10-11.


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