It would be hard to overstate the philosophical significance of John Rawls's TJ. It articulates and defends an egalitarian conception of liberalism and distributive justice that consists of two principles of justice: a principle of equal basic liberties and a principle that distributes social and economic goods and opportunities so as to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged. Rawls defends this liberal egalitarian conception of justice primarily as an alternative to utilitarianism. He situates his defense of this liberal egalitarian conception of justice within the social contract tradition by arguing that his principles of distributive justice would be preferred to utilitarianism and other rivals by parties to a social contract in which they were represented fairly, that is, as free and equal moral persons. This explains why Rawls calls his conception justice as fairness and the importance of the hypothetical original position as a way of modeling a fair initial position from which principles of justice might be selected. Rawls thinks not only that justice as fairness would be preferred to utilitarianism in a fair social contract but also that it provides a better reconstruction than utilitarianism of our considered views about individual rights and justice. Though Rawls's primary focus is on the justice of the basic structure of society, his critique of utilitarianism, his contractualist methodology, and his defense of equal basic rights have had much wider philosophical influence, extending to a variety of issues in ethical theory and normative ethics. In this way, the publication of TJ transformed and reinvigorated ethics as well as political philosophy.
Any assessment of justice as fairness must address the adequacy of Rawls's contractual argument for his two principles of justice and against utilitarian rivals. In this context it is worth noting that Rawls has two kinds of ambition. On the one hand, he has the substantial but comparatively modest ambition to defend a more egalitarian alternative to utilitarianism. He would succeed in this ambition insofar as parties in the original position would indeed prefer his two principles of justice to traditional utilitarian rivals. On the other hand, Rawls also has the more ambitious aim of showing his two principles of justice to be uniquely plausible, that is, to be superior to all reasonable alternatives.
Chapter 11 of On Liberty contains John Stuart Mill's now classic defense of freedom of expression. This defense of expressive liberties has proved extremely influential and finds important echoes in First Amendment jurisprudence within United States constitutional law. Though important in its own right, Mill's defense of freedom of expression also plays an important, though sometimes overlooked, role in his more general defense of individual liberties. Mill turns to freedom of expression immediately after his introductory chapter in the belief that there is general agreement on the importance of freedom of expression and that, once the grounds for expressive liberties are understood, this agreement can be exploited to support a more general defense of individual liberties.
It will be convenient for the argument if, instead of at once entering upon the general thesis [the defense of various individual liberties], we confine ourselves in the first instance to a single branch of it on which the principle here stated is, if not fully, yet to a certain point, recognized by the current opinions. This one branch is the Liberty of Thought, from which it is impossible to separate the cognate liberty of speaking and writing. Although these liberties … form part of the political morality of all countries which profess religious toleration and free institutions, the grounds, both philosophical and practical, on which they rest are perhaps not so familiar to the general mind … Those grounds, when rightly understood, are of much wider application than to only one division of the subject, and a thorough consideration of this part of the question will be found the best introduction to the remainder.
Our commitment to the objectivity of ethics is a deep one. Ethics is objective just in case there are facts or truths about what is good or bad and right or wrong that obtain independently of the moral beliefs or attitudes of appraisers. A commitment to objectivity is part of a commitment to the normativity of ethics. Moral judgments express normative claims about what we should do and care about. As such, they presuppose standards of behavior and concern that purport to be correct, that could and should guide conduct and concern, and that we might fail to accept or live up to. Normativity, therefore, presupposes fallibility, and fallibility implies objectivity.1 Of course, this presupposition could be mistaken. There might be no objective moral standards. Our moral thinking and discourse might be systematically mistaken.2 But this would be a revisionary conclusion, to be accepted only as the result of extended and compelling argument that the commitments of ethical objectivity are unsustainable. In the meantime, we should treat the objectivity of ethics as a kind of default assumption or working hypothesis.
The prospects for moral realism and ethical naturalism have been important parts of recent debates within metaethics. As a first approximation, moral realism is the claim that there are facts or truths about moral matters that are objective in the sense that they obtain independently of the moral beliefs or attitudes of appraisers. Ethical naturalism is the claim that moral properties of people, actions, and institutions are natural, rather than occult or supernatural, features of the world. Though these metaethical debates remain unsettled, several people, myself included, have tried to defend the plausibility of both moral realism and ethical naturalism. I, among others, have appealed to recent work in the philosophy of language–in particular, to so-called theories of “direct reference” – to defend ethical naturalism against a variety of semantic worries, including G. E. Moore's “open question argument.” In response to these arguments, critics have expressed doubts about the compatibility of moral realism and direct reference. In this essay, I explain these doubts, and then sketch the beginnings of an answer–but understanding both the doubts and my answer requires some intellectual background.
In Principia Ethica, G. E. Moore used the open question argument (OQA) to deny that moral properties, such as Tightness or goodness, are natural or metaphysical (that is, supernatural) properties. Moral properties, on his view, are nonnatural and sui generis. The OQA attempts to establish this ontological or metaphysical thesis by semantic means. The OQA assumes that if moral properties are natural properties, then moral predicates can be defined in terms of natural predicates, which Moore apparently understood as nonmoral predicates drawn from the natural and social sciences (broadly construed).
Much of traditional analytical jurisprudence concerns the nature of law and the relation between law and morality. One traditional debate about the nature of law concerns its objectivity or determinacy. A conception of law can be understood to be objective insofar as it represents the law in actual or hypothetical controversies as determining a uniquely correct outcome; it can be understood as skeptical insofar as it represents the law as indeterminate. Extreme skepticism would claim that the law is rarely, if ever, determinate, whereas complete objectivity would claim that the law is never indeterminate. By contrast, a more moderate skepticism maintains that the law is indeterminate when it is especially controversial what the law requires. Here, as elsewhere, extreme views may be difficult to accept. Few endorse complete objectivity; some strands in Legal Realism and in Critical Legal Studies appear to endorse extreme skepticism about the law; but moderate skepticism is probably the view more congenial to common sense.
Another traditional jurisprudential debate concerns the relation between law and morality. This debate is often cast between Legal Positivism and Natural Law. Whereas Natural Law theory asserts that there is some essential connection between law and morality, Legal Positivism denies this. In particular, Natural Law theory typically asserts that valid laws must have some significant moral content, without which they are not genuine legal norms.
It is common to regard love, friendship, and other associational ties to others as an important part of a happy or flourishing life. This would be easy enough to understand if we focused on friendships based on pleasure, or associations, such as business partnerships, predicated on mutual advantage. For then we could understand in a straightforward way how these interpersonal relationships would be valuable for someone involved in such relationships just insofar as they caused her pleasure or causally promoted her own independent interests. But many who regard love, friendship, and other associational ties as an important part of a happy or flourishing life suppose that in many sorts of associations— especially intimate associations—the proper attitude among associates is concern for the other for the other's own sake, not just for the pleasure or benefits one can extract from one's associates. It is fairly clear how having friends of this sort is beneficial. What is less clear is how being a friend of this sort might contribute to one's own happiness or well-being. Even if we can explain this, it looks as if the contribution that friendship makes to one's happiness could not be the reason one has to care for friends, for that would seem to make one's concern for others instrumental, not a concern for the other for her own sake.
One of Sidgwick's concerns in The Methods of Ethics is with the structure of individual rationality. Theories of rationality are concerned with the way in which benefits and harms rationally ought to be allocated among persons and across time.
Theories might be classified by what they say about whose welfare matters. Person-neutral theories say that it is of no rational significance on whom a benefit or harm falls; an agent has reason to promote value, whether this value accrues to the agent or others. By contrast, a Personrelative theory insists that whom a benefit or harm befalls is of great rational significance to the agent. The most common form of person relativity is agent relativity; a theory is agent-relative if it insists that a benefit or harm must befall the agent to be of rational significance to her.
Theories of rationality might also be classified by their attitudes toward the temporal location of benefits and harms. A theory is temporally neutral if it is indifferent when benefits and harms occur; it is temporally relative if the temporal location of a benefit or harm affects its rational significance.
Sidgwick is a friend of rational egoism, although, as we shall see (Section 1), there are different interpretations of the constancy of his friendship. Rational egoism claims that an agent has reason to do x just in case, and insofar as, x is in her own interest, welfare, or happiness.
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