I thought I’d pen a brief response to Sven’s provocative opening salvo against moral philosophy, “I Want It All, Baby!” Now, I’m not a philosopher, but I like to play one on the Internet. (Actually, I almost went into a philosophy Ph.D. program, but in the end the infamously dire job market in that discipline deterred me.)
As I see it, moral philosophy is the derivation of valid principles for normative judgment, where normative judgment is the making of (true) statements about whether particular types of conduct are and are not justifiable. Now, I don’t see how making normative judgments without a unified, underlying principle or rule is possible.
After all, we can’t have it all – we can’t have a society that combines perfect liberty, perfect equality, and absolute security. We have to make tradeoffs, but on what basis do we make those tradeoffs? We have to have a principle! To be precise, we have to have one and only one principle. If there are multiple moral principles, they can always come into conflict, and we will have to rely on a more fundamental principle to adjudicate the conflict.
More fundamentally, I just don’t think it’s quite right to view moral judgment as a process of making tradeoffs among values. This point of view implicitly assumes that we’re trying to maximize some kind of function, in which our values (liberty, equality, security, etc.) are variables. That sounds a lot like stealth utilitarianism. Defending utilitarianism is fine, but it should be done forthrightly, not slipped in through the back door. Are liberty, equality, and security valuable only insofar as they promote the aggregate happiness of Homo sapiens (or perhaps the entire animal kingdom?).
Rather, most defenders of liberty and equality see these terms as shorthand for principles of justice (any view that fails to equate “security” with a form of “liberty” is just confused). Thus, a Marxist sees the employment contract as inherently and necessarily wrong and exploitative, while a libertarian sees that same relationship as an inviolable exercise of liberty. I don’t see any way these different positions can be “weighed and balanced.” They can only be reasoned back to first principles.
On a final note, moral philosophy makes progress by tracing first-order arguments about justice back to their atomic particles, the basic principles on which they are based. It is deductive, not inductive, so we should not hold it to the same standard of progress as inductive science. By its proper standard, moral philosophy has actually made great strides over the centuries.