Much modern moral philosophy has conceived of its interpretative and critical aims in relation to an entity it sometimes terms ‘common-sense morality’. The term was influentially used in something like its canonical sense by Henry Sidgwick in his classic work The Methods of Ethics (1874). Sidgwick conceived of common-sense morality as a more-or-less determinate body of current moral opinion, and traced his (‘doxastic’) conception through Kant back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and the practice of Plato’s Socrates before him. The Introduction to this thesis traces the influence of Sidgwick’s conception both on subsequent (mis)understandings of Socratic practice as well as on the practice of moral philosophy in the twentieth century.
The first essay offers a challenge to Sidgwick’s understanding of Socratic practice. I argue that Socrates’ questioning of his interlocutors, far from revealing some determinate body of pre-existing beliefs, is in fact a demonstration of the dynamic and partially indeterminate quality of common- sense morality. The value for the interlocutor of engaging in such conversation with Socrates consisted primarily in its forcing him to adopt what I term a deliberative stance with respect to his own practice and dispositions, asking himself not ‘what is it that I believe?’ but rather, ‘what am I to believe?’ This understanding of Socratic practice gives us a way of reconciling the often puzzling combination of conservative and radical elements in Plato’s dialogues.
The second essay is a discussion of the reception of Sidgwick’s conception of ethics in twentieth-century Oxford, a hegemonic centre of Anglophone philosophy. This recent tradition consists both of figures who accepted Sidgwick’s picture of moral philosophy’s aims and those who rejected it. Of the critics, I am centrally concerned with Bernard Williams, whose life’s work, I argue, can be fruitfully understood as the elaboration of a heterodox understanding of Socratic practice, opposed to Sidgwick’s. Ethics, on this conception, is a project directed at the emancipation of our moral experience from the many distortions to which it is vulnerable. Williams’s writings in moral philosophy, disparate and not entirely systematic, are unified by these emancipatory aims, aims they share with strains of psychoanalysis except in that they do not scorn philosophical argument as a tool of emancipation: in this respect among others, I claim, they are fundamentally Socratic.