Caring About Ethics

In an essay called “The Normative Question”, Christine Korsgaard describes moral scepticism as the idea that “once we see what is really behind morality, we won’t care about it anymore.” She goes on to argue that a simple explanation for morality – perhaps a proof that our moral impulses have strong evolutionary reasons – will be inadequate to induce us to act morally. “Suppose morality demands that you yourself make a serious sacrifice,” she writes,”… is it really enough for you to think that this action promotes the preservation of the species?”

Well, you might say, you wouldn’t be acting to promote the preservation of the species. You’d be acting because that’s what your conscience urges you to do, and (or in other words) because you genuinely care about the people around you. The idea that finding out the mechanism behind your motivation would cut your motivation off is profoundly strange, at least in this context. Finding out that my taste for chocolate ice-cream is because of evolutionary drives towards calorie-dense food does not in fact dissuade me from eating ice-cream. Learning that if I had been raised a different way I might have been a murderer or a fascist does not in fact make me more disposed to murder or fascism.

I think it is obviously possible to care passionately about ethics in the absence of any normative framework. “The answer we need,” writes Korsgaard, talking about normativity, “is really the first-person answer, the one that satisfies us when we ourselves ask the normative question.” But our ethical choices – at least mine – do not fundamentally flow from reasons or answers. The reasons are subsidiary, invented when I am challenged to justify my behaviour. What motivates me to act ethically is just that: a motivation.

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