Ian Ramsey Centre

“Morality and the Transcendent” - John Cottingham

‘Ethics is transcendental.’ So Wittgenstein remarked in the closing pages of the Tractatus. He also associated morality with the mystical. Many modern ethicists have taken a much more down-to-earth view of moral discourse, either reducing it to a mere projection of our preferences, or else attempting to ground it in some aspect of the natural world studied by science. But naturalistic theories of ethics offer too many hostages to contingency, while alternative contemporary ‘non-naturalist’ approaches cannot easily reconcile the normative power of morality with their conception of what the world is ultimately like. For the theist, by contrast, the mysterious authority of moral demands invites us to interpret them as stemming from the transcendent source of morality that is God. The paper ends however by voicing reservations about characterising such a position in terms of the ‘supernatural’.

JOHN COTTINGHAM is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Reading, Professorial Research Fellow of Heythrop College, University of London, Visiting Professor at Kings College London, and an Honorary Fellow of St John’s College, Oxford. He is the author of many books and articles on early-modern philosophy, and on modern ethics and philosophy of religion. His most recent books are Philosophy of Religion: Towards a More Humane Approach (Cambridge, 2014), and How to Believe (Bloomsbury, 2015). http://www.johncottingham.co.uk

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