Sophistication Beyond Measure: The Limits of Railton’s “Sophisticated Hedonism”

It is a long and storied objection that moral philosophy is only a form of hostile autobiography- a way of dictating rules for the world without embracing it. Meta-ethical debates continue, but it is at least some proof against this claim that contemporary moral philosophy concerns itself deeply with how we live our lives, how friendships, relationships, and the demands of everyday life can be attended to while continuing to be moral. Alienation is just one obstacle among many in such efforts, but it is this obstacle which Railton believes he can dissolve by reworking the way we schematize and apply morality. Railton establishes a subjective/objective duality in interpreting a given moral philosophy and posits that by adopting the objective and dismissing the subjective we become sophisticated and avoid the problems of alienation. While Railton’s sophisticated consequentialism is an innovative and structurally sound approach, it fails to defeat alienation by being impracticable: no human being constrained by the limits of ordinary psychology could possibly live such a life.

If only for a fleeting moment of believability, let us admire Railton’s sophisticated consequentialism. His motive here is a worry that the moral points of view, being necessarily universal and impartial, tends to alienate one from life itself, to create “a kind of estrangement, distancing, or separateness resulting in some sort of loss” of that which “compels his allegiance to life itself” (Railton 134, Williams 18). The strict and upright consequentialist might do all the right things for all the right reasons, but he is still going through life as if following a handbook and a (very undependable) calculator- he has lost touch with humanity.

The solution to this alienation then, is to bridge universalized moral principle (in this case consequentialism) with actions that fully (emotionally and otherwise) acknowledge one’s “special relations” within the world (Railton 136). We begin on the starting embankment of moral law- Railton specifies a pluralistic consequentialism aimed at maximizing a set of goods but notes that the bridge he aims to construct “could be made, mutatis mutandis, by a deontologist” (148). From the bank of ideology we … Continue Suffering

Partiality As Life-Philosophy: Reconciling Morality with Life

First, a story. Not mine, Plato’s.

Socrates faces the end of his life. The Athenian jury condemned him to death months ago, the sacred rite during which executions are prohibited ended yesterday, and he has so many times refused to allow his friends to aid in an escape that they no longer bother him with it. But they still come. They come to do what Socrates has always taught them to do: question, postulate, discuss, question again, question again. Phaedo, Apollodorus, Simmias, and Cebes have come, even Crito has found a place to sit and rest his aged legs while he farewells his old friend. The guard, Ctesippus, must come soon, but in the many months of Socrates’ stay at the jail he has come to know Socrates well and wishes to delay his duty as long as possible.

Here at the precipice of his death, Socrates is visited by his family: Xanthippe his wife, Lamprocles his teenage son, and the two babies. Pheado, the teller of this tale, is pre-occupied with the philosophical dialogue at hand and so we do not know what Socrates said to his grieving wife and children. There was speculation (primarily from Xenophon) of much animosity within the family (specifically, that Xanthippe was a harsh mother and argumentative wife), but this is largely believed to be apocryphal (if she disliked him so much, why would she be with him on the eve of his death?). Nevertheless, Plato tells us that Socrates neither labored for money nor visited home very often, preferring the company of his students and the public marketplace- it is unlikely this state of affairs was very conducive to a healthy family atmosphere (especially in ancient Athens, where women could barely leave the house without their husbands). When Socrates returns to the dialogue, he tells his friends “I sent the women away, to avoid unseemliness, for I am told one should die in a good omened silence:” he did not want the grieving of his family to disrupt the discussion and respect of his death (Plato 117e).

If one has come to the … Continue Suffering