One question, but by no means the only question, that we can ask ourselves when reading the great philosophers of the past is what can they tells us about contemporary debates? A recent attempt to show the fruitfulness of bringing history to bear on a contemporary debate is Robert Stern’s Understanding Moral Obligation: Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard (hereafter UMO).
In UMO Stern sets himself two tasks: First, to give an alternative to the “standard story” of modern ethics from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. The “standard story” Stern is referring to is the constructivist story (starting with the work of John Rawls) which casts Kant’s worries about autonomy as being about value realism. Stern thinks that we have good textual reasons to reject this reading and to read Kant as a kind of value realist instead. Stern sees Kant’s main concern in regards to autonomy as really being a worry about the respective solutions to the problem of moral obligation given by divine command theorists and natural law theorists. He then goes on to re-read Hegel and Kierkegaard with the problem of moral obligation as the starting point. As I have only made it through part 1 which focuses on Kant, I do not yet know how Stern will read Hegel and Kierkegaard.
Stern’s second task in UMO is to shed light on some of the issues that remain at the heart of current philosophical debates, viz., autonomy, constructivism, moral realism and moral obligation. Although Stern does not clearly layout his position, at least not in part 1, it seems clear that he has realist tendencies which he thinks can be reconciled with some notion of autonomy. In other words, it seems that he would favour a position which is realist about the content of morality yet anti-realist about the source of “obligatoriness”. In a slogan: realist about content, anti-realist about form.
Without getting into the textual debate that Stern wades into in part 1, I would like to say something about my impressions of this type of project. First, it is an interesting project. The extended sections on the history of divine command theory and natural law are of great historical interest and do help to improve my understanding of what Kant was up to. Second, the calling into question of a ‘standard’ account of history seems to me to always be a fruitful endeavour. It can clarify what might be obscured by historical distance. This is especially the case if there are people basing their theoretical position on the groundwork that this ‘standard’ account is taken to justify, but which according to Stern it does not justify. Finally, the one thing I find troubling about the book is that the contemporary ethical debates tend to take a back seat to the historical picture Stern is painting. This makes me wonder if a work of the sort that Stern is trying to accomplish is just too ambitious for one book. To do justice to both a contemporary debate and the historical figure is a tall order and it seems that you are going to have to cut short the attention to one in order to fit both into a book of manageable length. However, I am remaining optimistic as I head into part 2: Hegel.
From the first part of UMO, I can say that this a fruitful read for anyone interested in the history of modern ethics or contemporary debates about constructivism , realism and obligation.