I will never forget the analogy used by Alasdair MacIntyre in the opening lines of After Virtue… Suppose that there is a nuclear war and most of civilization is lost. Once we get ourselves back together in 100 years, we might try to teach things again, like science. But how? We will have to piece back together what we can find on the topic… A 5th grade biology textbook, a medieval medicine manual, a paper by Einstein… What will that curriculum look like? What would our conception of the world of natural science look like based on what we have left?
This is the world of moral thought and language today, he argues. After those fateful days at Cambridge in 1903 which led the so-called Bloomsbury group into moral havoc, the academy followed suit, with some hailing G. E. Moore as the greatest ethicist who ever lived, despite the ideas directly following his book being more a philosophical catharsis than a direct development on his aesthetic-based utilitarian intuitionism… We got “emotivism.”
Here is an example he gives of just how far moral language has come: until 1630, “immoral” LITERALLY MEANT “sexually lax.” To call someone immoral was to call him promiscuous. Another example that MacIntyre gives is of the language of “rights,” and how that idea did not exist in its current form until very recently. He uses extremely harsh language in defending this position… It’s a fun read!
His solution to the problem, by the way, is where the idea of the “Benedict Option” comes from. Anyway…
For many people, there is little to no thought in their daily lives about what is right and wrong “on the ground,” so to speak. (On CAF there is often the opposite problem!) Even fewer people examine normative ethics, which is now mostly relegated to the classrooms of liberal arts universities. And there are even fewer who bother to look at how their particular normative ethics fits into the larger picture of a holistic philosophical worldview, which is called “metaethics.”
I will here assert my position. Due to the modern situation, as described by MacIntyre, which of course involves more than I’m here presenting (read the book!), today’s Western individual is nearly doomed to misunderstand the very nature of the discussion of right and wrong as it stood for 2 milennia, up until the Enlightenment project began (and ultimately failed). It is worsened by the leftovers of the chaos caused by the Cartesian project, which Kant tried to clean up but actually made even worse, as is expressed by the clear lineage he has through Hegel, into Marx, and finding rest in some of the fiercest, most vicious dictators of all time.
It’s not so much that people are giving bad answers nowadays so much as it is that they are not asking good questions. “Is abortion wrong?” Sadly, it is a rarity that one will have even the rudimentary equipment to discuss this with any semblance of reason, since the parties are not even aware of their own vague metaphysical and epistemological commitments, let alone that they are usually simply (badly) parroting the conclusions of a distinct “SYSTEM.”
This is all lost on post-modern man. One will possibly begin appealing to religion or even to political alliances, and from there the discussion rests solely on authority and is usually beyond hope.
In any event, there is, I suggest with MacIntyre, one dominant metaethical position today (if not dominant at least “polar,” inasmuch as one measures around poles), with one dominant related normative ethical system.
Emotivism is the metaethics (which reduces the nature of moral claims in themselves to the expression of a feeling, such as “Hooray!” or “Boo…”), consequentialism the ethics (which covers a very broad range of positions that use a temporal outcome as the measure of the morality of an act).
Most people on planet Earth flirt with these two paradigms, knowingly or not (and some will go so fat as to hover over even scarier voids). No, not everybody is Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill (who were utilitarian, a specific kind of consequentialist, mind you), but most people circle around the pole of consequentialism nonetheless. Watch a presidential debate.