2008 Balzan Prize for Moral Philosophy
Acceptance Speech – Rome, 21.11.2008
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great honor to be here, and to be included in the extraordinarily diverse and distinguished company of recipients of the Balzan Prize over the years. I am particularly grateful for the recognition given to the field of moral philosophy by the decision to award a prize in that category this year. That serves as an acknowledgment of the great development and growth of the subject in our time. Not only moral philosophy, but its application to political theory, philosophy of law, and questions of public policy have been among the most important recent areas of philosophical activity and influence.
I entered the field of philosophy at a fortunate time. After a long fallow period, caused, I believe, by the combined influence of logical positivism and Marxism, both in their different ways skeptical about the usual forms of moral thought, philosophy began in the second half of the twentieth century to take substantive moral and political questions seriously again. When I was an undergraduate at Cornell University in the 1950’s, I studied with John Rawls, who was then beginning the work on his theory of justice that would transform the subject radically. What I received from him above all was the conviction that philosophical ethics was not limited to the analysis of moral concepts and moral language, and that it was possible to think rationally about first-order questions of morality and justice in a way that respects their complexity. I then spent two years at Oxford, where I encountered Philippa Foot, whose work on ethics and motivation made a deep impression on me, and H. L. A. Hart, who was initiating a great opening up of legal philosophy with his lectures which became The Concept of Law and his reflections on the legal enforcement of morals, which would appear as Law, Liberty, and Morality. I returned to the United States, to Harvard, to complete my graduate studies, with Rawls as my supervisor (for he had moved there). He was completing his great work, A Theory of Justice, and discussed it in draft with his students.
Moral, political, and legal philosophy were set on a new course by these figures, and the humanistic aspect of philosophy became in consequence an important part of the analytic tradition that was and still is dominant in the English-speaking world. I have been lucky to have as colleagues and friends a number of philosophers who, in the words of Bernard Williams, pursued “philosophy as a humanistic discipline” and for whom moral philosophy was a central part of the subject: Williams himself, Ronald Dworkin, David Wiggins, Robert Nozick, T. M. Scanlon, and Derek Parfit, among others. One connection has been particularly sustained and fruitful: for the past twenty years, at New York University, Ronald Dworkin and I have conducted a colloquium in Law, Philosophy, and Social Theory, to which we have invited many of the significant contributors to these fields for discussion of their work in progress, and to which we have also presented our own writings.
I have worked in other fields, notably the philosophy of mind and the theory of knowledge, but this community of individuals with a common interest in real moral, political, and legal questions, and a belief that it was possible to make progress on such questions by reason, argument, and analysis, has probably been my main intellectual home. Philosophy is essentially a solitary enterprise, but we would meet and comment on drafts of each other’s work, and a common set of problems was treated from different points of view. These problems included the relation between liberty and equality as social and political ideals; the degree of impartiality among persons that morality demands, and its relation to the demands of personal life and personal attachments; the basis of individual rights, and of the strict prohibitions on certain ways of treating people, even as a means to worthwhile ends. We were concerned also with the pressing public questions of our time that are related to these more abstract problems: the legitimate grounds and methods of warfare; the way state power could legitimately be used to promote economic equality; the appropriate response to inequality between the races, and between the sexes; the relation between religion and the state; and the culturally sensitive issues of sexual freedom and abortion. I don’t suppose we have had much impact on public policy, but we have made it possible for the philosophical aspect of all these issues to play a part in the teaching of the subject at universities, and some of the discussion has extended into other fields, notably law, economics, and political science.
Through philosophy I have made connections all over the world, particularly as the interest in developments in moral and political theory grew and spread, in conjunction with the growing influence of the values of constitutional democracy and human rights. It has been a moving experience to take part in debates about these subjects in Hungary, Russia, China, Argentina, and South Africa, during periods of political transition. But the philosophical friendships I have formed in Italy, France, and Germany as well as in other countries are also due to this spread of ideas.
I remember with particular pleasure, for example, a conference in Napoli organized by Sebastiano Maffettone, and a late-night discussion on that occasion in the bar of the Santa Lucia Hotel with John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin, at which Salvatore Veca was also present; perhaps he remembers it too. Rawls mentions the occasion in the Introduction to his book, Political Liberalism.
It is a great honor to accept the Balzan Prize in Moral Philosophy, and I would like to accept it not just for myself, but as an honor to the community of philosophers who have brought this subject to life in our time, including some of the best, like John Rawls, Bernard Williams, and Robert Nozick, who are no longer with us.