Philosophy is a rational, and hence a fundamentally general and universal, enterprise. When you think about a particular question – such as, say, whether doctors, in the case of certain interventions, should seek consent from patients – you might end up holding the principle that doctors should indeed seek consent. But presumably you wouldn’t wish to restrict the principle to doctors. Perhaps opticians also have to seek consent in some cases. What you will recognize is a general principle that, other things equal, one should not interfere with others without their agreement – or, as some might prefer, that one should respect the autonomy, privacy, or integrity of others (one of these concepts should be enough, and it will itself require some elucidation).
We have a huge number of broadly normative or ethical concepts, arising from various evolutionary, historical, and cultural contingencies. At least some of them we probably don’t need to use (though we should remember them and be ready to ‘mention’ them if, for example, thinking about history). One obvious example others have suggested is ‘chastity’. But there may be others. Consider, for example, the notion of ‘rights’, which is a relatively young concept compared to ‘duty’ (merely hundreds of years old, rather than thousands). If you unpack the concept of a right, you’re almost certain to make reference to certain duties correlating with various rights. So – in philosophy, at least – why not restrict yourself to duties alone?
But we might start tidying up our concepts at an even more fundamental level, asking what is the fundamental question we are asking in philosophy (at least, practical philosophy). My suggestion for that question is: ‘how should one act?’. That question itself requires some unpacking, and, following Bernard Williams, I’d recommend: ‘what reasons does one have to act?’.
by Roger Crisp
Once you’ve carried out this procedure as far it can go, you will have a set of what W.D. Ross called ‘prima facie duties’ (by which, as many have pointed out, he meant ‘reasons’; my recommended holiday reading here would be the second chapter of Ross’s The Right and the Good, which though nearly a century old remains as insightful and relevant as ever). You will then be well set up to re-enter the philosophical fray after the vacation. The issues that philosophers discuss are important, urgent, and deeply interesting. And philosophers love arguing. But before you invite others in to debate with you, it’s a good idea to make sure your philosophical house is in order. If you don’t, the conversation may not be as productive as you’d hoped.
When you start answering that question ab initio, you might then introduce principles you are already inclined to accept, making sure that they are as clear, precise, and parsimonious as possible. Take the duty not to violate the autonomy of others. Do you really need the notion of ‘duty’ as well as ‘reason’? If you can say everything you want without it, then put that aside, along with ‘rights’. What matters about the violation of others’ autonomy? If you think, after serious reflection, that there just is an ultimate, non-derivative reason against doing that, then your principle can stand. But if you incline to the view that the violation of autonomy is objectionable only in so far as it harms others, then use the notion of ‘harm’ instead, as more general and more fundamental: ‘One has a reason not to harm others’.
For some, the end-of-year holiday offers a little time for relaxation, and perhaps also some general reflection independent of the particular issues one has been thinking about over the year. I’d like to recommend starting with the concepts you use, both to frame ethical questions, and to answer them.

Similar Posts