Philosophy Colloquium Series
Meta-ethics continues to be one of the least historically self-conscious fields in philosophy, and is also arguably among the most under-represented fields in comparative and cross-cultural philosophy. Asking about the desirability (or possible irrelevance, as some might argue) of engaging with the history of meta-ethics naturally recalls the larger question of the value of pursuing the history of philosophy more generally. I consider a few different considerations that enter into various justifications of historical approaches to philosophy. When it comes to meta-ethics, a prior question is whether any significant meta-ethical discussion was going on prior to Hume and Kant (if even so early as that); I argue that, even on a narrow construal of what meta-ethics covers, there have been meta-ethical concerns in philosophy since ancient times, and in at least two separate ancient traditions of philosophy. Evidence of these earlier discussions may be enough to warrant a purely ‘contextualist’ interest in the history of meta-ethics. But I also consider ‘problems-based’ motivations for exploring the history of meta-ethics. For instance, can contributions be made to the assessment of certain forms of irrealism, such as meta-ethical relativism, by comparing meta-ethical ideas across time? With such problems in mind, cross-cultural comparisons are arguably even more relevant (especially with respect to philosophical ‘cultures’, such as that of ancient India, that were largely insulated from Western philosophy). Open questions remain, however, as to how to integrate these into a broader historical and cross-cultural approach to the field.