It is a truth universally acknowledged that any man in possession of (the good fortune of) ethical concern is in search of goodness. And it is a fact generally unnoted that goodness is of little concern to ethics – to philosophical inquiry into matters ethical.1 Both as inquiry into value and evaluation, and as ‘practical philosophy’, ethics focuses on the object of judgement: on action, its ‘ground’ (reason, motive, disposition, character) and ends (happiness, virtue, dignity, and so on), and on the bearer of such judgement. Thus while we ﬁnd ‘good’ as end or purpose, we seldom ﬁnd goodness; while we ﬁnd rational, moral or virtuous agent or person, we seldom ﬁnd a good man or woman. The importance of goodness for ordinary ethical understanding makes its
absence from ethics hard to understand, even unintelligible. For not only does ‘Goodness is ethically important’ seem obviously true, but its negation – ‘Goodness is not ethically important’ – borders on nonsense. Ethics’ indiﬀerence to what is of undeniable ethical importance warrants charging it with strange, even scandalous, negligence and with obligation to remedy it. The fact that the few thinkers concerned with goodness consider it the rather
than an ethical issue, heightens both charges; the fact that their work stands in tension with ‘mainstream philosophy’2 hints at something deeper at work. Rai Gaita’s work, exhibiting the rare quality of being both moral and philosophical, does much to elucidate both the urgency of the charges and the complexity in meeting them. For his recognition of the peculiar problem of goodness, more generally ‘absolute value’, draws, and sheds further light, on the bond between experience and understanding of value. Showing the inseparability of making sense of what matters to us from attending to what’s involved in thinking about what matters to us, he explores the relation of philosophy to its subject matter and rewards – and troubles – both ‘substantively’ and ‘methodologically’. Gaita stakes out both his ‘substantive’ position and his ‘engagement’ with
philosophy by the very title of his main ethical work, Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception. Its Platonic-Christian overtones mark a distance from ‘mainstream philosophy’. Aware that such express commitment creates a temptation to shrug it oﬀ as a ‘mere particular (moreover minority) tradition’,
Gaita endeavours to make it hard for us to give in to that temptation in good – ethical and philosophical – faith. His discussion of values informing the ‘absolute conception’ – values centred on the ‘sacred’ – shows them, if only because they ‘resonate’ with us, to be central to our ordinary ethical understanding. The point is taken still further when he argues that they also underlie our legal and political consciousness and institutions. And if ‘absolute value’ is today inseparable from our ‘mainstream’ value tradition then that tradition, despite its secular and naturalist commitment, is itself bound to, even grounded in, a commitment which it cannot make sense of in its own terms. Gaita’s exploration of the urgency and complexity of coming to terms with
absolute value draws on and argues for the need to hold the ‘moral’ and the ‘philosophical’ together. Confronting us with substantive examples and exploring our experience of them, Gaita seeks to make philosophical sense of what is ‘before us’, thereby simultaneously confronting us with the complexity of ‘making sense’ of what is thus before us. Exploration of our experience of value shows, he argues, the inseparability of ‘reality’ and ‘recognition’ and, within the latter, of thought and response. The ‘reality’ of moral value is inseparable from the reality of it as a claim on us, and serious responsiveness to that claim is internal to the recognition of its reality (Gaita 1991: 51). The ‘substantive’ argument regarding the ‘reality’ and the ‘knowing’ of
value simultaneously indicates the ‘route’ (the met-hodos) to be taken in making sense of it. Reforming the what of moral philosophy means rethinking the how – philosophical thinking itself. Gaita’s criticism, though directed at ‘academic philosophy’, goes way beyond it. For his portrayal of value as knowable only from within the experience of valuing – culminating in a ﬁerce attack on the ‘courageous thinker’ committed only to reason, free of any but ‘cognitive’ concern with the ‘object’ of his inquiry, and so free of himself as a thinking human being – questions philosophy itself. It questions the dual idea(l) of, ﬁrst, rational inquiry as activity of reason independent of its object, free, indeed obliged, to go wherever reason leads; second, the obligation to ‘stay’ with the conclusion, not just ‘rationally’, but ‘practically’: to live by what that inquiry brings one to. We ﬁnd both embodied in Socrates, who, speaking with his fellow men, demands that they follow and stay with the ‘logos’, regardless of their ‘ordinary’ views. Yet, embodied in Socrates speaking with his fellow men, we also ﬁnd the demand to inhabit what one says: to give one’s ‘consent’ only to what one can believe, to follow reason in so far as it claims one as a human being. Gaita’s commitment both to his subject and his subject matter makes him aware of the complexity of ‘the responsibility of reason’: responsibility both as ﬁdelity to the requirements of ‘impartial’ inquiry, and as responsiveness to its object and to one’s ‘partner’ in the inquiry. In its latter sense, responsibility questions the separability of thought and content, reason and response, rationality and experience, and along with that, the distinction between the ‘theoretical’ and the ‘practical’. The inseparability of the reality of value from its lucidly responsive recognition,
while argued across the board, is particularly signiﬁcant for ‘absolute value’.
For, however interwoven with the ordinary, absolute value is extraordinary. And the ‘extraordinary’ is not just the (statistically) exceptional, but is experienced as the ‘extraordinary’; more worryingly it may run counter to ‘ordinary’ moral beliefs and responses. We are again reminded of Socrates talking with his fellow men: of that ever surprising transformation of ordinary talk into committed dialogue in the course of which ordinary beliefs are revealed to be grounded in the extraordinary. But we also see – if only in the frequent failure of that engagement – the resistance of the ordinary to what is revealed to it by its own thought, and the consequent need for absolute commitment to stay the course. Permeating Gaita’s own, ‘Platonic’, tradition, is thus the conviction that reason, in taking us to unexpected lands, might not only open up new ‘experience’ but must also do justice to experience, which coming to us as intimation, may elude being ‘grasped’ in a complete – clear and distinct – deﬁnition, and in a completed – once and for all – account. The absolute and the extraordinary is ‘mysterious’, and the ‘mysterious’ is irreducibly known in experience such as wonder, awe, love, or remorse and pity. The sensitivity to the complex give and take between reality, thought and
experience, which informs Gaita’s tradition, is marked by a serious concern with style. The conception of philosophy as eﬀort of disciplined thought to make sense of, and do justice to, what is ‘before’ one, as search for meaning and lucidity rather than ‘explanation’ and ‘truth’, is expressed among other things by the integral role of complex examples and a style which is narrative, rather than ‘argumentative’. For complex examples (like complex reality) allow a reading which is better or worse, deeper or shallower, rather than right or wrong, or true or false. Furthermore, internal to their speaking to us is that they engage us as individuals. Unlike ‘reasoning’, making sense, search for meaning, is personal – the work, but also the function of, the particular individual. Meaning ‘appears’ only to a discerning, i.e. engaged, eye. And though ‘the eye is not part of the visual ﬁeld’ – the thinker does not enter autobiographically – yet the visual ﬁeld reveals the eye. The thinker ‘appears’ through what appears to him as important, and in doing so he appears as witness to what so appears to him. When we have an ‘author’ rather than a ‘thinker’, the above possibilities
and requirements are mirrored into that ‘other’ to whom he speaks. The author is in search of his reader; ﬁnding him means involving him as a thinking value-constituted being in what is being shown and argued. Such involvement is, once again, essentially personal. Not only because it takes an individual to be so involved, but because any conversation or dialogue about things serious requires trust between those engaged in it. This is all the more so when the ‘issue’ is extraordinary, absolute, value, whose recognition involves witnessing to it. Furthermore, since we cannot be indiﬀerent to one who opens us to things of value, the ‘success’ of the work, its ﬁnding its reader, creates a relation of friendship and gratitude to the author. For the same reason, failure of the work to ﬁnd its reader is marked not just by the rejection of the position, but by personal irritation, even hostility.