In the the first meeting I ever had with my PhD supervisor we discussed possible research areas. I said that I was open to lots of different options, but didn't want anything to do with moral philosophy. I'd always found it tedious, messy, and unhelpful. He, in return, stated that he wasn't interested in supervising an ethics thesis, so all was well. (By the way, I'm using the words 'ethics' and 'morals' to mean the same thing.)
After such a beginning, you won't be surprised to hear that that's more or less what I ended up studying, so Isabel Dalhousie and I have something in common. We also have in common the desire to live morally – to make informed moral decisions about the right thing to do, and have the will to act on them. And we both fail in both these things sometimes. Just as Isabel finds it hard to decide whether or not to tell Cat about Toby's unfaithfulness, I sometimes can't tell the best thing to do and find myself weighing up pros and cons of possible options. And sometimes even when I decided to act one way, I put my foot in it and do the opposite, like Isabel when she blurts out Toby's affair to Cat in spite of her decision not to.
But Isabel and I also have our differences. One big difference is that God is given no place in Isabel's moral thinking, whereas he's integral to mine (we'll come back to this in a later post ). Another is that Isabel's interest is mainly in applied ethics – questions like Is gambling wrong? and Should you always tell the truth? – whereas I’m more philosophically interested in metaethics. Metaethics considers what it is that makes something good or evil (consequences? intentions? cosmic order? divine command?), and how we can know one from the other (reason? experience? innate knowledge? revelation?). Like everyone else, of course, I can’t avoid grappling with applied ethics all the time, after all, making moral decisions is normal part of life. But how we approach these practical questions depends on our metaethics so I think it’s worth thinking about!
Like most of us, Isabel apparently doesn't have a single, settled metaethical position. We do know bits and pieces though: she's not very impressed by moral relativism or Kant, but is sympathetic to Hume; she’s happy to claim the legacy of Scottish common sense philosophy and American pragmatism; she's grown out of Wittgenstein, and isn't keen on “petty Calvinism.” In my next three posts, I'll have a quick look at some of these. Please keep in mind that I'm only giving brief accounts which gloss over a range of complications. I'm including some further reading for those whose appetites are whetted for more!