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The NYU Ethics Forum presents:
Liam Murphy, "Illusory Moral Rules: How Law Misleads us about Morality"

General Colloquium

Liam Murphy (NYU)

Thursday, April 20, 6:00 p.m.

5 Washington Place, Room 202

Thursday, April 20th, Liam Murphy (NYU) will present his paper, "Illusory Moral Rules: How Law Misleads us about Morality," from 6:00-8:00 p.m. at 5 Washington Place, Room 202.

ABSTRACT: I return to Elizabeth Anscombe’s idea of a “law conception of ethics” and identify two aspects of such a conception. The methodological aspect has it that we should do moral theory from the point of view of hypothetical ideal moral legislators. The substantive aspect has it that morality, like positive law, is more centrally a matter of rules, that apply case by case to conduct (e.g. do not kill), than a matter of goals morally required for a life as a whole (e.g. support the constitutional democratic political order). I argue that the methodological aspect of a law conception is a serious distortion of moral thought, as the problem of how to live, morally speaking, is very different from that of how to figure out what the positive law should be. The most important upshot of this distortion is that we will think it follows from the fact that it would be good if people accepted a certain rule, that there is such a rule. The clearest offender here is rule consequentialism, as traditionally understood. The law conception of ethics does not start with Kant. The early modern natural lawyers had a law conception as well. But they realized clearly that morality couldn’t be all a matter of rules. Grotius’s distinction between perfect and imperfect duties corresponds to the distinction between rules and goals. Drawing on a recent paper by Barbara Herman I make the case for the importance of imperfect duties/goals. Moral philosophers (other than virtue theorists and pre-Sidgwick classical utilitarians) tend to favor rules over goals in moral theory. In other work I have defended a Humean conventionalist or practice-based account of promise and property, and argued against the idea that there is a prima facie duty to obey law. Such a view requires some moral link between the value of the practice and individuals. It now seems to me that that link takes the form of a required goal to support each valuable practice, which is grounded in a required goal to make things go better. Resistance to this kind of view may in part be due to the influence of the law conception, in either its methodological or substantive aspects. Many problems remain, the most important among them being the difficulty of getting clear on what a required goal is, exactly.

This event is part of the NYU Ethics Forum, a series of informal talks at NYU given by ethicists in the New York City area. Food and drink will be provided.