Out of the ivory tower troop the English-speaking moral philosophers, blinking a little, but certainly invigorated by their new freedom. Their imprisonment was a stiff one. The notion that it was rather unprofessional for them to mention the real world, and doubly so to take sides about it, became obligatory more than fifty years ago, and has only gradually loosened its grip. Rawlsian discussions of justice made the first large breach in the walls; medical ethics widened it, and many other important topics have now followed. The move is admirable. But there are still serious problems of method. Like a lot of other academic problems, they seem to centre on the matter of contentiousness. Scholars tend to be occupied with attacking each other and dividing into factions, crying sic et non. In ivory towers, this does not particularly matter; it is simply a ground rule of the game. Out in the world, however, it matters a lot. Where real moral questions are involved, attacking people sharply is usually not the best way of persuading them. And a real moral question is necessarily one where there is something to be said on both sides. It was these awkward facts which produced the tower-dwelling policy of neutrality in the first place. Philosophers saw their abstention from moral judgment as a contribution to public freedom, a laudable refusal to 'distort a relatively neutral study into a plea for some special code of morals', as C. L. Stevenson put it. Yet this justification is itself merely a moral judgment like any other, and, when you come to think about it, a very odd one. In a confused world crying out for explanations, discreet silence cannot really be the best possible use for high-class talents and intellectual training. The mighty dead, from Socrates to Mill, did not mind taking sides about the hard problems of their day, and on the whole what they said has been useful. Is there something about the status of a modern academic which makes it impossible to follow their example?
LRB 7 June 1984 | PDF Download