Capacities, Rights, and Essences: Part 4 – Bringing It All Together

Photo by Shannon Potter on Unsplash

There are three common bases for moral reasoning that drive me crazy: capacities, rights, and essences. They bug me because they don’t, and can’t, work even though they dominate the popular discourse. They are different in most ways, but I believe their appeal is what they have in common. I will look at each one in turn before coming to their commonality.

Well, I’ve covered all three (here, here, and here). If capacities, rights, and essences are as bad as I think they are when doing moral reasoning, why are they so popular? What do they have in common? On the surface, not much. I mean, they’re all nouns, but that’s not the type of connection I’m going for. Still, as you might have guessed, I have a theory.

My best guess is that all three are actually the result of scientism. The thing that they have in common is that they make the user feel like she is discussing facts about the world. They are an attempt at putting ethics on an empirical footing. Science is, for many people, the ideal way of learning about the world. Unfortunately, science has never been any good at telling us anything about values.

I’m talking, of course, about the is-ought problem. Science is all about the is while values are all about the ought. Sure, people have tried to get around it, but none successfully. I’m not going to get into it here, but the only way around it is to posit some kind of purpose (telos in the jargon). All that does is put it off a level, though. Good and bad and all of morality are relational. Capacities, rights, and essences are telling us about the whats. Who, how, why, when, and where are all morally more important factors.

So, that’s my not so little four-part rant. Morally, it doesn’t matter what capacities something has, at least not in any straightforward sense. Rights are social constructs and only good within their own society. And essences, if they exist, are morally neutral. No matter how much we may not like it, morality will never be concrete. We are doing ourselves a disservice by trying to make it so.

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