In the latest Philosophical Investigations, Olli Lagerspetz reviews James Sterba’s The Triumph of Practice over Theory in Ethics. Lagerspetz summarizes the book’s thoughtful premise:
There is, I think, some reason for suspicion of the dexterity with which ethical theorists often find rational reasons for conclusions that we would favour anyway on intuitive grounds. The official idea is that theoretical thinking helps us make ethically correct decisions by way of deductive reasoning from a general theory of morality. However, in practice, it seems that the process rather goes in the opposite direction. Certain answers are implicitly treated as foregone conclusions, and philosophers, on the contrary, vindicate their own theories by showing that the expected answers can be derived from them.
Despite seemingly vast differences of principle between leading ethical theories of today’s academia – various professedly Kantian, utilitarian and Aristotelian approaches – their proponents show only a marginal disagreement over matters of substance. Their largely converging practical recommendations reflect the general sensibilities of their own age rather than views actually held by Kant, Mill, or Aristotle. Today, there are no Aristotelian advocates of slavery and no Kantian opponents of female higher education.
People often argue that disagreements about ethics suggest there is no ethical truth. But in some ways this lack of disagreement can seem just as suspicious.
Added: If our specific moral beliefs are better than those of Kant, Mill, or Aristotle, what exactly caused that improvement, if not better abstract ethical theory?