By Richard Marshall
Originally published March 10, 2012
Richard Marshall interviews Kieran Setiya
Here are some excerpts:
KS: That’s an interesting angle. I would separate two aspects or kinds of philosophical therapy: one aims to change how people live, the other treats philosophical problems not by giving answers but by exposing them as illusory or confused. I am wary of the first ambition, but I cautiously embrace the second. One of the central idea of my first book, Reasons without Rationalism is that a common understanding of the question “Why be moral?” is misconceived.
If you are asking “Why be moral?” you might be asking whether so-called “moral virtues,” such as justice and benevolence, are really virtues, whether they are really ways of being good. That is what Callicles does in Plato’s Gorgias. But it has seemed to many philosophers that the question can be interpreted in another way, as conceding that you have to be just and benevolent in order to be good, and asking “Why be good?” Why should I act as an ethically virtuous person would act, if that is not what I want to do? I argue that the second question makes no sense. It assumes that we can interpret the concept ‘should’ as denoting a standard for action distinct from the standard of ethical virtue or good character, a standard by which they can be challenged. What could this standard be? A while back, I mentioned the ambitious thought that principles of reason might derive from the nature of agency, that a criterion for how we should act might fall out of what it is to act intentionally. In Reasons without Rationalism, I show that we can make sense of “Why be good?” as a substantive question only if this ambitious project can be made to work. And I argue that it can’t. There is no standard for how one should act apart from the standard of ethical virtue or good character. In that sense, the question “Why be good?” is a target for philosophical therapy, not direct response.
3:AM: So how do we know what it is to be good, if we can’t use moral theory? What if my model of virtue is Pol Pot, a mass murdering political tyrant? Without moral intuitions to rely on, how can you show that I am making a mistake? Your forthcoming book is called Knowing Right From Wrong. Does it answer this question?
KS: Sort of. The book attempts to show how moral knowledge is possible in the face of radical disagreement. A pivotal thought is that the standards of justification in ethics are “biased towards the truth.” There is no ethically neutral, Archimedean point from which to assess the justification of ethical beliefs. Instead, the basic measure of such beliefs is the standard of correct moral reasoning – a standard that is subject to ethical dispute. When I am confronted with someone who believes that self-interest is the only ethical virtue, it is not just that I am right and he is wrong, but that I am reasoning well about ethics and he is reasoning badly: my beliefs are warranted and his are not. This story doesn’t rest on epistemic egoism, since what justifies me is not that my beliefs are mine, but that they are based on reasoning that tracks the truth.
The entire article is here.