Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Founding Moral Principles

Last night as I went to bed musing on the fact-value distinction, I discovered a curious function of foundational principles. Today, Lawrence Solum provides excerpts (scroll down) from a fascinating philosophy article titled Facts and Principles, by Jerry Cohen, that deals with a very similar issue. My writing is very unlike Cohen's, given that I've had no formal philosophical training, so please excuse (or appreciate, depending on your point of view) the plain speaking. What I've conceived is in the same vein as Cohen, but without references to facts. I've dealt solely with principles (what Cohen labels P and P1).
To give a reason for why I accept a moral principle, I will necessarily invoke a more fundamental moral principle. To explain why I accept the more fundamental principle, I must invoke an even more fundamental principle. Eventually I'll come to the bottom principle that animates my ethical system. To justify this principle I must answer "Just because, there's no reason." If I'm not forced to answer "Just because; there's no reason" then I know that I haven't yet plumbed my thinking to the Founding Principle. But eventually I'll be forced to admit that there is no reason for why I believe a principle -- that principle is my Founding Moral Principle.

Now what occurred to me last night was the impossibility of criticizing anyone else's Founding Moral Principle, no matter how outrageous it might seem to me. There is no basis by which I can claim that my Founding Principle is better than theirs. The only way I could claim my principle was better would be because I have better reasons to accept my Founding Principle than they do. But I can give NO reasons for accepting my Founding Principle. If I could give reasons, then it isn't my Founding Principle. The Founding Principle is accepted, necessarily, on blind, non-rational faith. The only critical discussion two people can have concerns their consistency in building an ethical system from their Founding Principles. The Founding Principles themselves are beyond challenge.

Note: It seems to me that it would be possible to have multiple compatible Founding Principles. One principle could be "human beings have intrinsic value" and another "dogs have intrinsic value."
If anyone knows of a philosopher who's dealt with this curiosity, please send me a reference.


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