This essay examines and replies to a powerful neo-Humean argument, developed in particular by Bernard Williams, that all normative ethical theory ought to be rejected.
Are there good grounds for thinking that the moral values of action are to be derived from those of character? This “virtue ethical” claim is sometimes thought of as a kind of normative ethical theory; sometimes as form of opposition to any such theory. However, the best case to be made for it supports neither of these claims. Rather, it leads us to a distinctive view in moral epistemology: the view that my warrant for a particular moral judgement derives from my warrant for believing that I am a good moral judge. This view seems to confront a regress-problem. For the belief that I am a good moral judge is itself a particular moral judgement. So it seems that, on this view, I need to derive my warrant for believing that I am a good moral judge from my warrant for believing that I am a good judge of moral judges; and so on. I show how this worry can be met, and trace the implications of the resulting view for warranted moral judgement.
Two conclusions are defended here: a normative ethical conclusion, and a conclusion concerning normative ethical argument. First, it is morally wrong for the affluent not to contribute to international aid. But secondly, we can show this without a justificational ethical theory: we need appeal only to the practical reasoning characteristic of the virtues of kindness and justice. Thus the paper displays the resources for normative argument of a “virtue ethics”; but any plausible moral outlook must endorse its normative conclusion. If so, all moral outlooks face a “problem of demandingness”: morality seems to preclude practically any source of personal satisfaction.
A review essay discussing Bernard Williams, Making sense of humanity and other philosophical papers 1982-1993 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).