winch on moral dilemmas and moral modality

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Connecticut]On: 10 October 2014, At: 14:31Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T3JH, UK

    Inquiry: An InterdisciplinaryJournal of PhilosophyPublication details, including instructions forauthors and subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/sinq20

    Winch on Moral Dilemmas andMoral ModalityCraig Taylor aa Flinders University , AustraliaPublished online: 18 Aug 2006.

    To cite this article: Craig Taylor (2006) Winch on Moral Dilemmas and MoralModality, Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy, 49:2, 148-157, DOI:10.1080/00201740600576910

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00201740600576910

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    http://www.tandfonline.com/page/terms-and-conditions

  • Winch on Moral Dilemmas andMoral Modality

    CRAIG TAYLOR

    Flinders University, Australia

    (Received 5 May 2005)

    ABSTRACT Peter Winchs famous argument in The Universalizability of MoralJudgments that moral judgments are not always universalizable is widely thought toinvolve an essentially sceptical claim about the limitations of moral theories and moraltheorising more generally. In this paper I argue that responses to Winch have generallymissed the central positive idea upon which Winchs argument is founded: that what isright for a particular agent to do in a given situation may depend on what is and is notmorally possible for them. I then defend the existence of certain genuine moralnecessities and impossibilities in order to show how certain first-person moraljudgements may be essentially personal.

    In his influential and much contested paper The Universalizability of Moral

    Judgments1, Peter Winch claims that what is morally right for one agent to

    do in a given situation is not necessarily the right thing for another (or all)

    agent(s) to do in that situation. Winch claims, that is to say, that moral

    judgments are not always universalizable. That Winchs position in

    Universalizability should be contested is hardly surprising: on the face of

    it, this position can be seen variously to present a challenge to moral

    cognitivism, the supposed impartiality of moral reasons, and to the idea that

    moral theory exhaustively determines moral judgment.2 Replies to Winch

    have, as one might expect, sought to defend the universalizability of moral

    judgments against what has been taken to be an essentially sceptical

    argument by Winch. However I argue in this paper that Winchs critics by

    and large fail seriously to address his positive thesis in Universalizability,

    which is that the class of first-person moral judgements includes, alongside

    Correspondence Address: Craig Taylor, Department of Philosophy, Flinders University,

    GPO Box 2100, Adelaide, SA 5001, Australia. Email: craig.taylor@flinders.edu.au

    Inquiry,

    Vol. 49, No. 2, 148157, April 2006

    0020-174X Print/1502-3923 Online/06/02014810 # 2006 Taylor & Francis

    DOI: 10.1080/00201740600576910

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  • (universalizable) moral oughts, certain personal moral necessities and

    impossibilities. The real, though scarcely acknowledged, issue between

    Winch and his critics is: can what is right for a particular agent to do in a

    given situation depend on what is and is not morally possible for them? I

    defend a positive answer to this question: I suggest that there are indeed

    genuine moral necessities and impossibilities such as Winch describes, and

    that certain first-person moral judgements may be essentially personal.

    I. The Case of Billy Budd

    Winch presents his position in Universalizability by drawing on the example,

    from the short story by Herman Melville, of the moral conflict faced by

    Captain Vere of the H.M.S. Indomitable in the case of the court martial and

    execution of Billy Budd (Melville [1924] (1967)). Winch wants to say that the

    conflict Vere faces in reaching the decision to sentence Billy to death is a

    conflict between two genuinely moral oughts, a conflict, that is, within

    morality (pp. 1589). On the one hand Vere, in his speech at Billys court

    marshal, accepts that Billy is innocent before God: Billys action in

    striking and accidentally killing his superior, Claggart, was caused by

    frustration born of the intolerable persecution he suffered at the hands of

    that man. But, on the other hand, the enforcement of Military Law relating

    to an action such as this, which took place on the high seas at a time when

    the threat of mutiny was acute, was also for Vere a moral obligation.

    What is controversial about Winchs account of the example of Billy

    Budd is his entertaining at the same time the following two thoughts: first,

    that morally he could not in such circumstances have condemned a man

    innocent before God, and second, that in deciding to condemn Billy,

    Vere did what was, for him, the right thing to do (p. 163). Winch argues

    here that in reaching this decision [that he could not condemn Billy] I do

    not think that I should appeal to any considerations over and above those to

    which Vere appeals (p. 163). Winch argues, that is, that there is no failure

    on either Veres or his own part to recognize some considerations relevant to

    judgment that might then explain their divergence here. According to

    Winch, what is right for Vere to do in this situation is not necessarily what is

    right for him (i.e. Winch) to do in this situation; in this kind of case moral

    judgments are not universalizable. As Winch says, there is a certain class of

    first-person moral judgments not subject to the universalizability

    principle (p. 159).3

    II. Assessing the First-Person Moral Judgments of Others

    What exactly Winch is claiming above remains widely misunderstood.

    Consider, for example, Lilian Alweisss recent objection to Winch:

    Winch on Moral Dilemmas and Moral Modality 149

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  • Winch fails to see that it is one thing to argue that when it comes to

    moral issues I can only appear as a person speaking for myself, and

    another to argue that another persons judgement, which differs from

    my own, is equally correct and morally convincing. To acknowledge the

    validity of another persons judgement, I need to be able to transcend

    my own personal point of view. Yet, as soon as I recognise the validity

    or correctness of another persons judgment, inevitably I beginquestioning the adequacy of my own (Alweiss (2003), pp. 20910)4.

    But Winch is not claiming that another persons judgment which differs

    from my own is equally correct and morally convincing. That is, he is not

    making the implausible claim that two conflicting moral judgments in a

    given situation may both be correct and convincing simpliciter. In the kind

    of case under discussion Winchs point is that we need to ask: Correct and

    convincing for whom? Winchs claim is not that if I were to move to adifferent point of view I would find a different moral judgment to be correct.

    It is true, as Alweiss notes, that Winch says that a given situation may

    without error strike different agents very differently. But Winch immediately

    goes on to add, and this is the crucial point, that if we want to express, in a

    given situation, how it strikes the agent, we cannot dispense with his

    inclination to come to a particular moral decision (p. 169). That is to say,

    we cannot characterise how the situation strikes an agent, their point of view

    if you will, independently of those partic

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