At the end of this month, I am due to respond to
Brian Leiter's essay
"Moral Skepticism and Moral Disagreement in Nietzsche",
on the National Humanities Center's web site On the Human.
In this essay, Leiter develops a Nietzsche-inspired argument, according to which
moral scepticism is strongly supported by the kind of
moral disagreement that exists among moral philosophers.
This made me wonder, To what extent do moral philosophers disagree about
moral questions? Of course, they disagree about the abstract foundational
of ethics: Aristotelians, Kantians, consequentialists, and the like, all
have different answers to these foundational questions. But to what extent
do they disagree in their moral verdicts on concrete cases or types of case?
I suspect that on several issues that are the focus of fierce
moral controversies today — such as homosexuality and the death penalty —
there is significantly less disagreement among contemporary philosophers
than in the population as a whole. Indeed, I tentatively suggest, the
historical record indicates that philosophers have been pushed towards the
liberal view on these issues by some fundamental features of philosophy itself.
1. On sexual ethics, a significant part of the world's population believes
that homosexual behaviour is seriously wrong. Hardly any philosophers
believe this today. In particular, the overwhelming majority of the contemporary adherents of every
major philosophical tradition in ethics — Aristotelians, Humeans, Kantians, and
consequentialists — all agree about this.
Moreover, on this issue, philosophers were pioneers. Until the 20th
century, all societies in which forms of Christianity were the dominant religion
harshly condemned homosexual behaviour.
Jeremy Bentham's essay on Paederasty (composed around 1785) seems
to have been
the first considered argument for homosexual law reform ever written.
In the mid-20th century, Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayer, and H. L. A. Hart all
played a significant role in the campaign for decriminalizing homosexual
behaviour. By now, the liberal view of sexual ethics seems to be the view
of the vast majority of philosophers.
I speculate that philosophy itself helped to push philosophers to this view.
Philosophy makes it hard to avoid the questions, "What harm does
homosexual behaviour do? What exactly is bad about it?" It also encourages
scepticism about attempted answers to these questions. So it is not surprising
that among philosophers, the belief that homosexual behaviour is wrong has
given way to what J. S. Mill called "the dissolving force of analysis."
2. Something similar, I suspect, is true of the death penalty. Until fairly
recently, almost all human societies made use of the death penalty. But now, I
suspect, the great majority of philosophers oppose it — including
Aristotelians like Antony Duff, Kantians like Allen Wood, and consequentialists
like Philip Pettit.
Moreover, as in the case of the case of sexual ethics, it was a philosopher —
in this case, Cesare Beccaria, in
On Crimes and Punishments (1764) — who led the way. One of the most
determined opponents of the death penalty in academia today is the philosopher
Here again philosophy has led philosophers to ask, "What exactly is good about executing convicted criminals? Is this good really of the right kind to outweigh the prima facie
reason against intentionally killing human beings who no longer pose any
imminent threat?" Philosophy also encourages scepticism about many attempted answers to the question. So I suspect that philosophy has pushed many
philosophers towards opposing the death penalty.
3. Admittedly, there may be more
disagreement among philosophers on some other concrete issues. There is perhaps slightly more disagreement
about abortion and assisted suicide than about homosexuality and the death penalty. There is considerable disagreement among philosophers about the moral issue that divides vegetarians and carnivores. But overall, I doubt that one can convincingly
argue that on these concrete questions (as opposed to the more foundational
questions that divide Aristotelians, Kantians, and consequentialists, et al.),
there is more extensive disagreement among philosophers than among the general