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W&L's James E. Mahon's New Book Examines Metaethics

James E. Mahon
James E. Mahon
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A new book by Washington and Lee University philosophy professor James E. Mahon examines the history of the debate about the relationship between moral obligations and their relationship to individuals' desires.

Mahon's book, published by VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, is titled Motivational Internalism and the Authority of Morality: A Study in the History of Metaethics.

Based on research that Mahon originally conducted as a doctoral student at Duke University, the book explores the theories of such philosophers as H.A. Prichard, A.J. Ayer, and W.D. Falk.

"This was very hot debate when I was in graduate school in the late 1990s," said Mahon. "But the history of the debate had not really been written, even though the debate got started in the '20s, '30s and '40s."

According to Mahon, one reason the debate was so intense among philosophers was that both positions can seem attractive.

Mahon Book"On the one hand, you have people who say that what you morally ought to do is totally separate from your desires, from what you actually want to do," he explained. "And other people will say that it makes little sense for people not to want to do what they themselves believe they ought to do, and that there should be some connection."

In addition to those two positions, held by various philosophers, a third view was posited by W.D. Falk, who had suggested a hybrid position and coined the philosophical term "internalism."

As Mahon explained, Falk argued that there is a special motivation when you arrive at a moral judgment about what you ought to do. And that motivation is separate from all your desires or wants.

"Suppose you want to get a job, but you know that you would have to conceal something on your résumé in order to get the job," Mahon said. "Falk contends that when you arrive at the moral judgment that you really ought not to fake your resume in order to try for the job, that motivation clearly conflicts with your desire. But it's a special motivation that attaches only to moral judgment."

A member of the Washington and Lee faculty since 2000, Mahon is head of the philosophy department and also serves as lecturer in philosophy and the law at Washington and Lee School of Law. He will be on sabbatical leave during the 2011-12 academic year, serving as a lecturer in the Program in Ethics, Politics, and Economics at Yale University, where he will teach an undergraduate course on "Lies and Deception," and also serving as a visiting researcher at Yale Law School.