Ethics as Spectator Sport

No sooner have I announced a blogging hiatus, than I have stumbled upon another gem of a passage in O’Donovan’s Self, World, and Time  (which I continue to dip in and out of) which simply must be shared.

“But here a danger arises: in its zeal to improve the quality of moral thinking Ethics can become programmatic, fastening on a single moment in the discursive processes of moral thought and constructing an account exclusively in terms of that moment.  The opening sentence of Kant’s Grundlegung  [“It is impossible to think of anything at all in the world, or indeed even beyond it, that could be considered good without limitation, except a good will“]  is the paradigm instance of this zeal, so peremptory, so unqualified in its reconstruction of all our natural ways of thinking that it struck the mind of revolutionary Europe with the numinousness of a divine revelation, which unfortunately it was not.  Something very similar is afoot with Mill’s ‘greatest happiness of the greatest number’ principle, or, indeed, with R.M. Hare’s employment of the Golden Rule.  So there developed the fashion that anyone with an observation to make about a moral concept—H.R. Niebuhr’s useful observations on responsibility, for example—had to present it in the form of a new moral program, an ‘Ethic of X,’ which proposed to drive its rivals from the field.  Ethics became a Battle of the Titans in which the rival Grundmotiven pitted against one another their capacity to save the appearances while reconstructing moral thought in terms of a single ruling idea.  And as commonly happens with such battles, there was generated a secondary form of Ethics as a spectator sport, conducting a running commentary on the struggle from the sidelines: ‘Now the Utilitarians say this. . . . Now the Kantians reply . . .’ etc. etc.  In which stultifying form the educational cultures of Europe and North America, as though resolved to produce a generation more unfitted for life than any of its predecessors, imposed the teaching of Ethics (in place of religion) upon senior high school students.  The battles were less real than computer games, their protagonists never more than two-dimensional reductions of a dense and complex moral experience” (72-73).

And I had wondered all these years if it was just something wrong with me that I found the usual presentation of Ethics within higher education sterile and cartoonish.  No wonder I found myself inclined to do something useful with my life and become a teacher of Historical Theology instead. . . .  

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