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Stout and individual VI

March 28, 2016

3.) Ethical monoglot or polyglot

It is here that languages of morals take on all their importance for the next phase of our inquiry: how does ethical justification fare in the face of its own three-headed specter of nihilism, skepticism and relativism, and what role can the position of the individual play in this challenge?

Certainly, for this position to play a role, we must first establish whether the situation of ethical justification is sufficiently similar to that of justification tout court to admit of extending Stout’s broader claims to ethical justification in particular. How do moral language and ethical justification themselves express the need for an understanding of individual qua bearer of a concrete, personal history and resident of an epoch, culture and community? Only then will we be able to bring individual and language closer to another and transition from talk of the moral language to that of moral languages.

As to the first task, Stout draws early on in Ethics after Babel on the justificatory groundwork already laid in The Flight from Authority and the position of the individual implied therein. He maintains that:

None of us starts from scratch in moral reasoning. Nor can we ever start over again, accepting only beliefs that have been deduced from certitudes or demonstrable facts. We begin already immersed in the assumptions and precedents of a tradition, whether religious or secular, and we revise these assumptions and set new precedents as we learn more about ourselves and our world. Our starting point is not so much arbitrary as inescapable: we are who we are, the heirs of this tradition as opposed to that one, born into one epoch rather than another, our intuitions shaped by the grammar of our native tongue. We demonstrate our rationality, if at all, by how we move out from that starting point […] (EB, p. 120).

Rationality, in ethics as in epistemology, finds itself constrained by several environmental considerations: discursive community, the context of a certain historical period, the conceptual economy of a given language. Thus, we find again those same factors which proved determinative for justification and rationality in the first section. On this count, descriptive language and prescriptive language show little in the way of divergence (for more on the descriptive-prescriptive or is-ought divide, see FA, Part 1. Consider also that Stout understands “being justified in believing p” as a normative relation.). Ethical justification likewise entails an inescapable reference to the individual.

More importantly, the emphasis on the individual here takes more prominent place than in the presentations above: the fact of being “we are who we are” represents an inevitable starting point for any effort at justification and self-knowledge an important extension thereof. If the individual is so central to justification, then some may yet object that justification takes on an entirely subjectivist cast. Indeed, the contingency of conceptual economy and cognitive context can lend the impression of arbitrariness insofar as the person’s ability to justify a belief will depend in part on the reasons available from the former.

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