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Robert Kane
Ethics and the Quest for Wisdom


This paper presents ideas of a new and as-yet-unpublished work defending new foundations for ethics rooted in a classical conception of philo­sophy as the search for wisdom. The goals of ancient wisdom were to understand what is worth believing about the nature of things (objective reality), and to understand what is worth striving for in the nature of things (objective value or worth). For many of the great ancient thinkers, such as Plato and Aristotle, these two goals converged. To understand what was true about the natural world and humans would also tell us what was good and valuable in the nature of things. Thus, theoretical and practical inquiry, fact and value, scientific explanation and purpose, merged in an overall quest for wis­dom. The modern age, by contrast, is charac­terized by what Hegel called “sunderings” (Entzwei­ungen) of these and many other con­trasts. There has been a ten­dency in the modern era to pry apart considerations of fact from value, the­o­­retical inquiry from prac­tical inquiry (about the good) and scientific expla­nation from purpose, with the conse­quence that the unified quest for wis­dom of the ancient philosophers was threatened as well. The role of modern science in the creation of these sunderings is well known. But two other contributiing factors are the starting point for this paper: (1) a greater recogni­tion of plura­lism of con­flicting cultures, forms of life and points of view about values, to­gether with (2) an uncer­tainty about how to show defini­tively which of the competing views is the correct one. The diver­sity of cultures and ways of life sug­gest that views about good and evil, right and wrong, are formed from particular per­spectives, limited by culture and history. The question then naturally arises of how, if at all, we can climb out of our historically and culturally limited points of view to find an objective standpoint above all competing points of view from which to judge what is universally right or wrong? The paper suggests an answer to this question: Ethical prin­ciples about right action and the good life can be seen to emerge from the philosophical quest for wis­dom itself, as the ancient phi­lo­sophers believed, but not exactly in the way they believed. The search for wis­dom about what is objectively true and good involves a persistent striving to overcome nar­row­ness of vision that comes from the inevitable limitations of finite per­spec­tives or points of view. When applied to ques­tions of value and the good life, this stri­ving to over­­come narrowness of vision, under­stood as a search for wisdom, has important implications for ethics, politics, values and our understanding of human rights.

Robert Kane (PhD Yale University) is University Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin.  He is also the author of seven books and sixty articles on the philosophy of mind and action, ethical theory and social ethics, the theory of value and philosophy of religion, inclu­ding Free Will and Values (1985), Through the Moral Maze: Searching for Absolute Values in a Pluralistic World (1994), The Significance of Free Will (1996) and A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will (2005).  He is the Editor of The Ox­ford Handbook of Free Will (2002) among other anthologies and a multiple contri­bu­tor to the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy.  His lecture series, The Quest for Mea­ning: Va­lues, Ethics and the Modern Experience, appears in The Great Courses on Tape Series (The Teaching Company).  The Significance of Free Will was the first annual winner of the Robert W. Hamilton Faculty Book Award.  The recipient of fifteen major teaching awards, Professor Kane was named in 1995 an inaugural member of the Univer­si­ty of Texas' Aca­demy of Distinguished Teachers.  His latest work is a recently comple­ted manuscript on wisdom, values and ethics entitled Ethics and the Quest for Wisdom.  Listings: Marquis' Who's Who in the World (Millennial Edition).


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