John Robinson's pages on

Empiricist Ethics

Luck, duty and benevolence
Rights, morals and history
The moral prisoner
A doubtful utopia

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Empiricist Ethics

When I was a Humanities student at Memorial University, I wrote some essays on ethics. You can look at four of my term papers (if you can stand the excitement) through the links on the left. All have been converted from MS Word, so their footnotes are missing.

Talking of footnotes, when I presented these papers bundled into a final "journal" for the Humanities programme, I characterized them as "Footnotes to the Scottish Enlightenment". That was a rather grandiose way of saying that I think David Hume and Adam Smith were onto something when they talked about moral sentiments. My essay on the relationship between the rich and the poor, Luck, duty and benevolence, ends with imaginative extensions to John Rawls' device of the original position, used by him in the development of a theory of justice. My extensions are, I'm sure, out of keeping with the rationalist spirit of the original, but they are sentiment pumps of which I think Hume would approve. Similarly, Rights, morals and history, sees human rights as historical phenomena that we should be grateful for but wary of, rather than as necessary consequences of a theory of duty like Kant's or a more egoist contractarianism. It has to be said that neither my examiners nor I were satisfied with the historical content of this essay: it is silent on the reformation and the holocaust yet discusses human rights documents from the aftermaths of those events. I'm really more at home with a subject like The moral prisoner which starts from the success of the iterated prisoner's dilemma in explaining egoist contractarianism, then tries to examine how other moralities fare within the sterile world of game theory. Even more up my street -- one of my examiners said it read like an engineer had written it -- was A doubtful utopia, a sceptical look at how to design the perfect state. I tried make this amoral, so it ended up being rather callous about human autonomy, dignity, sentiment, pleasure and pain. Strangely, though, it results in compassionate policies because it is admits both uncertainty about the nature of the good, and the frailty of humans and their environment.