Posted by: gcarkner | October 23, 2015

Compatibility Test #2: Postmodern Ethics

Can postmodernism fare better than naturalism in ethics?

R Scott Smith, PhD, Biola University


In my first talk, I addressed the topic, “can scientific naturalism even begin to explain ethics?” Despite many attempts by naturalists to account for ethics, I argued in part that we cannot have any knowledge based on what naturalism allows as real. The reasons for this can be seen perhaps most clearly in the work of the naturalist philosopher of neuroscience, Daniel Dennett, whom I think takes naturalistic evolution very consistently. Moreover, I argued that naturalism cannot account for some widely known “core” moral principles and virtues.

But, perhaps postmodernism (as explained by Wittgenstein or Derrida, for instance) might provide a favorable alternative. On it, everything is interpretation, for there is no direct access to reality itself. To even have an experience requires interpretation. If that is so, then it would seem that the “fact-value split,” the idea that the sciences uniquely give us knowledge of facts in reality, whereas ethics gives us just personal opinions, is itself just an interpretation drawn from a historically situated, contingent context. Thus, postmodernism tries to deconstruct and show that this proud confidence in science to give us knowledge of reality is just another modern myth.

So, several ethicists have proposed more postmodern approaches to ethics, and a major one is Alasdair MacIntyre. He proposes a return to Aristotle’s virtue ethics, yet modified in key ways, as a way to recover from the loss of moral knowledge precipitated upon us by the Enlightenment. Yet, knowledge now is to be understood as always from under a particular aspect, for no one has an ahistorical, blind-to-nothing standpoint.

Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 7.44.56 PMFor many, the “postmodern condition” just is axiomatic, and it reflects the ways we should go forward now in ethics. But, is this so? I will argue that while postmoderns are right to draw our attention to the ways our “situatedness” affects how we interpret our experience, they are mistaken in their claims that everything is interpretation. If everything is an interpretation, what are we interpreting? We are forced into an infinite regress, without any way to get started and know anything. Instead, I will argue that we can know reality directly, yet that does not mean we are blind-to-nothing, or can have a “God’s eye view” or exhaustive knowledge. Our situatedness does matter, but it may need to be more carefully considered.

Moreover, postmodern attempts cannot make adequate sense of what kind of thing some core moral principles (e.g., murder and rape are wrong) and virtues (e.g., love and justice) are. If naturalist and postmodern approaches fail to do this, what is a better explanation? I’ll argue that a much better explanation is that metaphysically they are immaterial and universals, and that they exist objectively.

Thus, I will argue that we can have moral knowledge, and along with my argument in my previous lecture, this helps refute the fact-value split.

 See also blog posts on Quality of the Will.

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