Just yesterday I told somebody I was burnt out on blogging. Then, of course, I woke up with an inspiration. Nothing full-fledged, but more like a little mini-inspiration.
Yesterday, we traded banter over what it means to say that a moral theory is prescriptive. This got me to thinking about other instances where people use that word, for example, the doctor. When a doctor prescribes some treatment for a patient, it is an admonition declaring what the patient should or ought to do. Of course, that the patient has a desire to increase their own well-being is implicit in the scenario. So, according to that which the patient values [an increase of well-being], the doctor is justified in prescribing a treatment. If somebody wanted to be pesky and demand that the doctor justify the prescription, the doctor could reply something like, “Patient X seeks alleviation from condition Y, and there is general consensus that treatment Z is the safest and most effective means of remedy.” That would constitute a reason for the doctor’s prescription, and that reason would amount to something more than intuition or bias. I think the salient point here is that something like a social contract exists; an implicit agreement between doctor and patient that “increasing well-being” is at or near the top of the value hierarchy.
Of course, you might have already noticed that I’ve described medicine, not morality. We could still ask the moral question: was it right or wrong for the doctor to prescribe treatment Z? My question to the person who would ask such a question is, “What do you mean by right and wrong?” Are those terms being used analogously to true and false? Are we asking, “Is it true that patient X should accept treatment Z? Is it true that the doctor should prescribe treatment Z?” If treatment Z is Tylenol, the moral question seems trivial. Yet, switch treatment Z to euthanasia or stem-cell therap, and BLAMMO – we’ve got ourselves bona fide moral questions. Not to digress, but why is that?
I think the underlying concept of what entails a justified prescription seems extensible. I feel confident in assuming that most people who read moral philosophy take the word prescriptive to mean something like, “proffering a set of should statements.” Recently, I heard somebody mention the fact that the Bible is prescriptive. That person was essentially noting that the Bible contains a set of should statements. For example, Jesus said you should love your neighbor as yourself. Conversely, the Israelites were told that they should not permit a “witch” to live. Traditional utilitarian theories say we should do that act which increases the most happiness or well-being. I think it’s fair to say that in order for a moral theory to qualify as prescriptive, it must proffer a set of should statements.
What do you think?