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Moral Thinking

David McKay reviews Francis Snare’s The Nature of Moral Thinking.

If you want pre-packaged answers to your ethical questions, do not read this book. If you want to know what to think about abortion, euthanasia, violence, ecological exploitation or any other contemporary hot potato, you will not find answers here. On the other hand, if you want to be trained to think critically about ethical issues, to examine arguments in order to identify their strengths and weaknesses, to consider how some of the great philosophical minds of the past justified their positions and sought to refute opponents, then this book will provide an excellent starting point.

Snare’s purpose is to analyse the ways in which different ethical schools have argued for their distinctive views, rather than to expound those views or apply them. Thus he does not provide historical accounts of, for example, Utilitarianism or Emotivism, but instead explains how Utilitarians and Emotivists think about ethics. Rather than coming away with information about what Mill or Bentham said on particular issues, the reader is taught to recognise and criticise Utilitarian thinking when he meets it.

The book represents the first year lectures in ethics given by Francis Snare (1943-1990) at the University of Sydney. It therefore starts at the most basic level, assuming no previous knowledge. The material is presented clearly and attractively, with occasional droll asides and useful contemporary examples. Snare is a good teacher and develops his themes carefully, never giving the reader too much to absorb at once, building each chapter on what has already been established earlier. More than some other introductions to ethics, this book will give the student a feel for the analytic method which he will encounter in other areas of philosophy, yet this is not done in a way that would be off-putting for the proverbial ‘interested layman’. The outstanding figures in the history of ethics all appear, but not wreathed in copious detail. Snare focuses rather on one or two key elements of each ethicist’s thinking.

In the opening chapter, “Moral thinking and philosophical questions”, Snare sets the scene by pointing out that it is impossible to avoid moral judgements, however they may be disguised. He isolates four problems which arise concerning the everyday moral judgements that all find themselves making: conflicts within one’s moral code, the application of one’s moral code to new circumstances, conflicts between the moral codes of different societies, and the conflict between duty and self interest. These in turn give rise to three questions: Are there any general principles of morality behind the various particular judgements we make? How can one justify (or ground or prove) a moral judgement? What, after all, is a moral judgement? Asking such questions allows Snare to distinguish issues of normative ethics from issues of meta-ethics, exemplified by the first and third questions respectively. The chapter ends in a stimulating way with “Advanced Questions to Think About (But not to decide right away)”.

Having laid the foundation, Snare moves on in the second chapter to authoritarian ethics and subjectivist ethics: he considers various proposed links between religion and ethics which, on closer examination, do not succeed in actually basing moral philosophy on religious statements. Snare then offers two ways of securing such a basis: one meta-ethical (“Being right just is being commanded by God”), the other normative (“Acts are right because God commands them”). Both, however, must clear the hurdles set up on the one hand by G.E. Moore’s ‘open question’ argument regarding the naturalistic fallacy, and on the other by Socrates’ arguments set out in Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue. The classic dilemma posed there is this: is an action evil because God forbids it or does God forbid it because it is evil (on some other basis)? The Euthyphro argument is also generalised and applied to authoritarian theories of ethics, and Snare makes an important distinction between two senses of ‘authority’, a knowledge sense (“an authority on…”) and an empowerment sense (“in authority over…”).

In the following chapter Snare considers and critically examines classic versions of teleological (goal-based) and deontological (duty-based) theories of ethics, drawing in such famous names as John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant and W.D. Ross. Just enough of each man’s position is explained to make clear his way of thinking without duplicating the work of histories of ethics.

The fourth chapter considers in some depth proposed links between the psychological (motivation) and the moral (justification) as formulated in psychological egoism (the theory that all are motivated only by self-interest) and psychological hedonism (all are motivated only by their own pleasure). As Snare shows, these are descriptive rather than normative theories; in other words they attempt to explain why people behave the way they actually do, not to say how they should behave. He examines the refutation of psychological egoism begun by Bishop Butler in the eighteenth century and developed by later writers, concluding that the psychological egoist makes ‘selfish’ mean merely “motivated by one’s own motivation”. Psychological hedonism is also examined carefully and both conceptual and empirical versions are called into question.

Chapter five discusses three types of meta-ethical theories: naturalistic, non-naturalistic and noncognitive. How can facts and values be connected? Are there such things as moral facts? Such are the questions which Snare considers. When examining noncognitivism, the view that moral terms do not ascribe properties of any kind, Snare considers three possible ‘gaps’ between the moral and the factual. These are firstly that no moral judgement just is a statement of fact, secondly that no moral judgement can be logically deduced from a set of premises consisting only of statements of fact (“Hume’s gap”), and finally that no moral predicate simply ascribes a property to something. In the following chapter Snare takes up the issues of Hume’s gap and the naturalistic fallacy, especially as considered by G.E. Moore.

From chapter seven onwards, Snare undertakes a comprehensive examination of relativism in its various manifestations. He starts by looking at the argument that all truth is relative. This involves a review of Protagoras’ theory of truth as set out in Plato’s Theatetus, which according to Snare leads to the conclusion that there can be no rational belief formation since each person makes truth for himself. Various expedients for saving relativism are then tried and found wanting.

In chapters eight to eleven Snare examines relativism in the meta-ethical realm with the aim of clearing up various misunderstandings about the consequences of a relativist view and its relationship to other positions. Thus in chapter eight he argues that there is no link between meta-ethical subjectivism and descriptive relativism. In chapter nine, “Genetic accounts which debunk morality”, he shows that the approaches of Nietzsche and Marx need not debunk morality and in fact themselves imply moral stances. Snare goes on to argue in chapter ten that descriptive relativism has nothing to do with situationalism (which says that each situation of moral choice must be examined on its own merits) and by itself does not serve to ground a moral case for toleration or beliefdependent duties. Indeed he argues in chapter eleven that meta-ethical subjectivism does not have any ethical consequences that are substantially different from objectivism.

How then can a normative ethical theory be justified? In the final chapter Snare contends that, whilst views such as those of Aquinas and Spinoza do follow from their meta-ethical positions, most twentieth-century views do not depend on whether meta-ethical subjectivism or meta-ethical objectivism is true. He offers three possible ways of justifying a normative theory: data methods, qualified data methods and the construction of an impartial/social point of view.

By the end of the book the reader is well-equipped to interact critically with ethical theories he will encounter. Inevitably in a book such as this, proponents of various views will sometimes feel hard done by and want to ask “But what about…?” Thus for example supporters of a divine-command view will not feel that ways out of the Euthyphro dilemma have been explored as satisfactorily as they might have been. That said, however, Snare’s book provides a very useful introduction to the ways in which moral thinking has been and is carried on.

© Rev. Prof. W.D.J. McKay 1996

The Nature of Moral Thinking by Francis Snare is published in paperback by Routledge and costs £9.99. ISBN 0-415- 04709-9

David McKay was recently appointed to the Chair of Systematic Theology and Christian Ethics in the Reformed Theological College, Belfast.

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