The Roy A. Rappaport Lectures, Fall 2015: Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories
The ethical reasoning and the shared vocabularies found in social interaction reflect the diverse historical pathways of particular communities. This lecture looks at some of the ways in which ethical concepts emerge and come to be formulated in public life. When such concepts are objectified, they are more readily subject to dissemination and critique. One example is American feminist consciousness-raising in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which drew on the workings of small conversational groups to formulate a new set of ethical concepts and even reconstruct moral emotions. Another example turns to influential ethical reform movements that build on the affordances of monotheistic religions. For instance, some modern Christian and Muslim piety movements seek to inculcate in their followers a wholly coherent and consistent set of moral values, which the individual aims to keep in constant attention. This lecture concludes by summarizing the varieties of ethical experience, which can be dubbed the first-, second-, and third-person stances. People are most often in the midst of things, but sometimes they find themselves outside the action. Their ability to move between positions--sometimes immersed in their immediate commitments, at others appealing to disinterested and dispassionate principles--draws on universal human capacities. I argue that this basic propensity to shift among stances can shed light on some of the long-standing puzzles of ethical relativism and universalism.