Values, Virtues, and the Language of Morality

In “Values or Virtues, Nietzsche or Aristotle?” Jay Gupta outlines the way that value discourse stifles normative intention and the ethical imagination. The aim of the paper is to “suggest that the language of values disguises a deeper, normatively richer language of virtue, and . . . point[s] to the importance of recovering that language in the modern age, as well as the difficulties that must attend such a recovery.” Before exploring the merits of the article, I wish to offer a few clarificatory notes. Recently, there has been a conspicuous number of thinkers that have advocated a return to virtue ethics. Perhaps the most notable among these is Elizabeth Anscombe, who, with the paper “Modern Moral Philosophy,” uncovers the supposed banality of modern moral philosophy and points to the ways in which moral discourse has retained elements of the Christian ethical tradition.

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Terrorism, Modernity, and the Politics of the Tactical

During his 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry stated, “We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance.” Though this statement was widely lampooned on right-leaning American media outlets, it is worth examining: swimming pools, and choking on one’s food, are more deadly, all things being equal, than terrorism. Yet terrorism produces a “conceptual helplessness,” in which, “We seem to be left with no good choices. To call what happened on September 11 evil appeared to join forces with those whose simple, demonic conceptions of evil often deliberately obscure more insidious forms of it. Not to call the murders evil appeared to relativize them, to engage in forms of calculation that make them understandable—and risked a first step toward making them justifiable.”

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Hegel, MacIntyre, and the (Living) Death of Moral Relativism

A recent piece in the Atlantic by Jonathan Merritt declares the “death of moral relativism.” It echoes observations made by other pundits that there seems to have been a shift in cultural attitudes concerning morality. In the United States, subjectivist, relativist, and “postmodernist” stances are said to have been replaced by robust commitments to social justice, tolerance, and inclusion. David Brooks also, for example, discusses the rise of a veritable “shame culture,” particularly evident on American college campuses and social media, ready to condemn and ostracize those who fail to acknowledge the importance of upholding these new, powerful norms of respect and recognition for the marginalized and oppressed. Indeed, the trend is so omnipresent that there has been significant backlash—critics decry the policing efforts of “social justice warriors” and the scourge of “political correctness.”

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Terrorism Undermines the Credibility of Moral Relativism

The following paper was presented at the 2016 Telos Conference, held on January 16–17, 2016, in New York City. For additional details about upcoming conferences and events, please visit the Telos-Paul Piccone Institute website.

While the expression “moral relativism” means different things to different people, I offer the following characterization of it. By “moral relativism,” I understand a normative view that explains people’s incommensurable moral judgments based on their subjective preferences or on different action-guiding contexts. Moral relativists deny that value judgments can be universally justified. Therefore, for them, value judgments have neither objective universal truth-value nor universal moral import. That is, these judgments are neither true nor false, nor right or wrong for everyone. For some moral relativists even to raise the possibility of moral disagreement across different cultures or communities would be simply moot.

Moral relativists can assume a subjective or a contextual point of view. If they assume a subjective point of view, one might describe their theories or hypotheses as nihilistic. Nihilists recognize no transcendent moral values and no moral facts. According to them, predicates, such as right or wrong, or good or bad, have no independent reference. So nihilists recognize no significant moral difference between, for example, the deliberate killing of the objectively innocent, which is considered murder by most civilized people, and killing in self-defense. For them, even the principle of the presumption of innocence would be vacuous.

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Defending Moral Realism

Anthony M. Matteo’s “In Defense of Moral Realism” offers a fascinating argument. He begins with the seemingly innocuous premise that philosophy, and by extension theorizing of any stripe, should be linked to what people actually do. Philosophy of science is his analogue, the obtuse, jargon-laden pages of such work often seeming to generate little useful insight for the practitioners of science. An account of morality, by analogy, should be useful to practicing moral agents.

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Contingency and Necessity in the Genealogy of Morality

Paul di Georgio’s “Contingency and Necessity in the Genealogy of Morality” appears in Telos 162 (Spring 2013). Read the full version online at the Telos Online website, or purchase a print copy of the issue in our store.

This article evaluates the relationship of the concepts of contingency and necessity to the historical developments and power relations in Nietzsche’s Genealogy. Both Nietzsche and Foucault maintain that, contra Herder, their genealogies are not grounded in originary investigation. Thus for their sort of genealogy to be a philosophically useful method, the force of interpretive analysis must be located elsewhere. The analytic force, I argue, is based in the relationship of values, events, and moral beings. Specifically, I maintain that the progression of moral stages in Nietzsche’s study is ordered in such a way that the failure of each stage is logically and structurally necessary, and that each failure structures the resultant system or paradigm. However, we must also note that the historical manifestation of moral paradigms which coincide with predicted or projected theoretical structures remains contingent upon a multitude of other historical factors, most importantly, human involvement. The conclusion is that systematic internal failures of moral stages allow for but do not cause successive events, since the structural scope of possibility within which a value may be held is best explained in terms of a “middle space” characterizable in both contingent and necessary terms.

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