From The Peaceable Kingdom
The Abstractness of an Unqualified Ethic
The first chapter suggested that there is no such thing as universal “ethics” but that every ethic requires a qualifier. Such a suggestion is deeply at odds with the main direction of modern ethical theory, which seeks a foundation for morality that will free moral judgements from their dependence on historically contingent communities. I have already identified problems in this project; here I will explore them further, focusing primarily on that project’s neglect of essential aspects of our moral experience such as narrative and virtue. More importantly, I will begin to show why Christian ethics must insist on the significance of the qualifier, “Christian.” In contrast to the universalizing tendency, I will argue that Christian ethics reflects a particular people’s history, the appropriation of which requires the recognition that we are sinners.
Modern ethical theory has underwritten, often in quite different ways, what Bernard Williams has characterized as the “midair” stance. Desiring to avoid any arbitrary normative recommendation, ethicists have sought to formulate a “metaethics” – that is, a formal account of the nature and basis of moral concepts – which in itself entails no single proscriptive alternative. Such a framework is meant to undergird the nonarbitrary aspects of our actual moralities. Though sometimes criticized as vacuous, metaethical reflection has hope to defeat any vicious subjectivism or relativism by showing that there exists a high ground which insures moral objectivity and which thus guarantees the constant capacity to “step back” from particular judgments and regard them from anyone’s point-of-view.
However, this supposed objectivity is actually the distorted image of subjectivism. It schools us to assume we can, and perhaps always should, respond to any purported immoral action with, “Who am I to say that is wrong?” As Bernard Williams points out, both the subjectivist and nonsubjectivist have no adequate justification for a response insofar as it is itself a moral thought. In midair “it tries to stand outside all moral positions (including the thinker’s own) and yet still be a moral thought. But this midair place, by subjectivism itself, is not a place in which anyone can have a moral thought” because it forces us to assume a stance external to our commitments and cares, which are the lifeblood of any morality.
Such an account of objectivity has the peculiar effect of alienating the moral agent from his or her projects. It requires one always to look upon one’s own projects as if they were anyone’s. But by constantly “stepping back” from our projects and evaluating them from an “objective” point-of-view, we rob the moral life of those characteristics from which it derives its rationale – namely, the close identification of what we ought to do with what we want to be as a concrete moral agent. But we do not, nor should we, live as if we are eternally critics toward ourselves and others. Rather we must and should form our lives by our desires, wants, and cares.
Williams does not think those who wish to assume a “midair” stance are properly able to argue the question, “Why should I be moral?” Ethics does not begin (nor is it required to begin) with an attempt to answer that question. A disciplined set of analytic skills, ethics begins with the recognition that we are already in the moral adventure. We are able to proceed, not because we share a common rationality, but because we find ourselves to be people who care about something. That we care is enough to ensure intelligible conversation with anyone who thinks he or she can opt out of moral involvement.
Form such a perspective the consistent amoralist does not make a rational mistake but a human mistake. As Williams points out, however, it is very difficult for the amoralist to be consistent.
If he [the amoralist] objects (as he no doubt will) to other people treating him as he treats them, this will be perfectly consistent so long as his objecting consists just in such things as his not liking it and fighting back. What he cannot consistently do is resent it or disapprove of it, for these are attitudes within the moral system.
This illustrates, as do many of his activities, the obvious fact that this man is a parasite on the moral system, and he and his satisfactions could not exist as they do unless others operated differently. For, in general, there can be no society without some moral rules, and he needs society; also he takes more particular advantage of moral institutions like promising and of moral dispositions of people around him. (Bernard Williams)
Williams’s argument, while powerful, weakens with his reference to “the moral system.” There is not one “moral system,” but many moral systems. Moreover it is not obvious that such systems are primarily constituted by “moral rules.” Indeed, with his reference to rules, Williams gives weight to the assumption that the primary focus of moral reflection should be on principles, rules, and / or promises. Emphasis on principle and rule is part of the metaethical scheme insofar as it is hoped that such rules will provide an objective, rational foundation of morality.