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Fr. 447

November 27, 2013

In reality, this notion of adjudication proves the second difficulty that arises once one supposes that the moral sense carries with it the possibility of variants or sub-species. The existence of a plurality in the moral sense creates difficulties, in particular, for defining its relation to virtue. For, on one hand, supposing that virtue is virtue everywhere and, hence, an immutable universal, a plurality of moral sense variants casts doubt on the means by which to come to and exercise virtue. Does the moral sense, at a structural or formal level, guide the individual to the exercise of virtue, regardless of the specific path taken or moral sense variant advocated (e.g. benevolence, justice, nobility) and the substantive content implied therein? Or is the fact that the moral sense leads the individual to virtue here to be understood at the level of content where there would be only one variant or path by which to come to virtue, the rest being mere deviant moral senses leading one, at best, indirectly to virtue and, at worst, away from virtue? On the first view, it would no longer matter by which variant or path the individual comes to virtue, as each would have no primacy over any other, all leading reliably to virtue. In this case, the moralist no longer has any specific prescriptive claims to issue to the individual nor any grounds on which to stand concerning the possible superiority of one variant to another. On the second view, it would be a question of finding the right path, but precisely how the individual is to recognize and distinguish that path from others is left unspecified. In this case, the individual has need of hard and fast criteria that the mere existence of a plurality of variants cannot provide at first glance and, perhaps, even after lengthy examination.

On the other hand and in a more extreme case, were one to maintain that virtue, like moral sense, is itself a plurality of variants, then a similar problem to that of relativism at the level of moral sense introduces itself at the level of virtue as well. Again, the variant by which the individual comes to virtue would be of little importance, as there would an equally large number of virtues, each different from the last. In light of this, the moralist is faced with a dilemma parallel to the one outlined in the first case above. If he or she admits that there are as many virtues as variants, none admitting of a comparison with another, then the moralist has no specific prescriptive claims to make on the individual. If, on the contrary, the moralist is to have specific prescriptive claims to make on the individual, then he or she will have need of some sort of preference ranking between the different virtues, for which, in turn, he or she would have need of an objective set of criteria or measures by which to adjudicate completing claims on the individual’s behavior. In the wash of variants and virtues, it is doubtful that such a set of criteria or measures could be developed such that those individuals on whom the moralist would be making the claim might accept them as valid in each and every case. For each individual could conceivably hold that the formulation of virtue fell to his or her own moral sense variant. Even without addressing the possibility of violent conflict between rival moral sense variants, it is clear into which type of endlessly problematic position the move towards plurality places the moral sense proponent.

In sum, it is in view of the difficulties outlined above, i.e. plurality of candidate dispositions and subsequent adjudication between candidate dispositions, that the moral sense proponent would do best by heeding and responding to those challenges to the uniformity of the moral sense. Indeed, as the title suggests, this is precisely Hutcheson’s aim in “All Mankind Agree In This General Foundation Of Their Approbation Of Moral Actions. The Grounds Of The Different Opinions About Morals”, where the author takes pains to account for: first, the various factors that impede the proper functioning of the moral sense in its approving disposition towards benevolence without thereby diminishing or robbing the moral sense of this privileged status; secondly, both the causes underlying the diversity of human mores in the world as well as the reasons for which this diversity leaves untouched the underlying uniformity of the moral sense qua disposition towards benevolence. Of the first category, Hutcheson enumerates two factors: the failings of reason or the understanding leading one to mistake misdeeds for benevolence in certain circumstances; the passions’ overpowering of the disposition towards benevolence in certain circumstances. Of the second, Hutcheson maintains that these causes falls into the respective categories of: differing conceptions of happiness or the good, as well as the optimal means by which to obtain it; the different oppositional systems which frame the organization of individuals into rival groups, societies, etc.; differences in the interpretation and understanding of the divine will.

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