Title: Ethics and value-reality. Aurel Kolnai#s legacy: an analytic ethic based on the phenomenology of value-consciousness and moral awareness.
Other Titles: Ethics and value-reality. Aurel Kolnai#s legacy: an analytic ethic based on the phenomenology of value-consciousness and moral awareness.
Authors: Bessemans, Chris
Issue Date: 11-May-2012
Abstract: ETHICS AND VALUE-REALITY. Aurel Kolnai’s legacy: an analytic ethic based on the phenomenology of value-consciousness and moral awareness.In 1900, Aurel Kolnai was born in a liberal Jewish family living at the centre of Budapest. He studied and wrote his dissertation in Vienna, converted to Catholicism and was mainly interested in and influenced by realist phenomenology – authors such as Brentano, Husserl, Scheler and Hartmann inspired him. In addition, he read many works of Chesterton and, later, also appreciated the writings of British moral philosophers, especially intuitionists. Due to the upheaval in the first half of the twentieth century, Kolnai was forced to travel around Europe, eventually ending up in the United States in 1940. Thereafter, he held a position at the Université Laval for several years and, from 1959 onwards, he was appointed at Bedford College, University of London. The accessibility of his work suffered from his perfectionism, which implied he was frequently unsatisfied with his work and often unable to finish the work he started, his ‘travelling existence’, eclecticism, a density of style in his work and – although there have been translations and publications of his work after his death in 1973 – the absence of a systematic account of his ethical and political-philosophical views. The aim of this doctoral dissertation is to remedy this hiatus and to introduce Kolnai to the contemporary debate and, in particular, to do this for his moral philosophy. The introductory chapter starts with a sketch of the difficulties that research about Kolnai has to face, but the chapter is mainly about Kolnai’s historical-personal context and his philosophical backgrounds. The former is covered by a brief biography, the latter by a longer section in which references are made to Meinong, Brentano, Scheler, Hartmann, Moore, Prichard and Ross, as the development of Kolnai’s ethical thought was mainly indebted to early, realist phenomenologists, value-ethicists and British moralists of the 19th and 20th century.The second chapter is a synopsis of and commentary on Kolnai’s ethical views. According to Kolnai, ethics has to start from the moral already present in reality and, thus, from ordinary thinking and reflection about moral experience and from the description of ethically relevant phenomena. Central to his observations was that value- and moral awareness are intimately linked and that only the phenomenological method would contribute to an improved understanding of morality. While we already, ‘pre-morally’ value life and its constituents, morality especially concerns the preservation, protection and improvement of these values and our valuable mode of being. Kolnai thus emphasized that although morality is based on primordially positive values, morality is primarily emphatically present whenever these positive values are threatened or corrupted. Kolnai named this the ‘Thematic Primacy of Evil’ (vs. the ‘Ontologic Primacy of the Good’) or ‘thematic’ or ‘negative’ morality (in addition to ‘positive’ and ‘implicit’ morality).In the third chapter, which can be seen as the crux of the dissertation, I identify the presuppositions of Kolnai’s moral philosophy and develop a neo-Kolnaian ethic by which I want to show the relevance of Kolnai’s methodology and views in terms of several issues in the contemporary ethical debate. I therefore develop a neo-Kolnaian conception of ordinary morality and delineate the Kolnaian view meta-ethically. The issues that are taken up, and by which I thus illustrate the fruitfulness of this methodology and view, are moral conflicts and moral dilemmas, the objectivity and universalizability of moral judgements, moral reasons and motivation and, lastly, the peculiar status of morality and being moral. In these sections, I mainly rely on developments of Kolnai’s insights about the importance of value- and moral awareness to ordinary morality and our reflective understanding of morality. In order to show Kolnai’s influence, I make use of his contemporaries and, especially, of the ethical writings of Bernard Williams and David Wiggins. Both Williams and Wiggins were colleagues of Kolnai at London upon whom, although generally not very well known, Kolnai had a considerable influence in the development of their ethical thought. Finally, there is an important section explaining Kolnai’s anti-utopianism and its relation to his moral philosophy. In general, in contrast to the nowadays all too often all too sceptical view about ordinary morality, I argue, in the spirit of Kolnai, that ordinary morality should be, and earns to be, taken much more seriously and less sceptically. In particular, a (philosophical) phenomenology that tries to describe and learn from morality as it is, has much more to offer than is often claimed by contemporary moral philosophy, all too often disregarding phenomenology and the search for relevant descriptions of ethical phenomena.
Publication status: published
KU Leuven publication type: TH
Appears in Collections:European Centre for Ethics
Centre for Ethics, Social and Political Philosophy

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