"The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life" was an essay by the philosopher William James, which he first delivered as a lecture to the Yale Philosophical Club, in 1891. It was later included in the collection, The Will to Believe and other Essays in Popular Philosophy.
"The psychological question asks after the historical origin of our moral ideas and judgments; the metaphysical question asks what the very meaning of the words 'good,' 'ill,' and 'obligation' are; the casuistic question asks what is the measure of the various goods and ills which men recognize, so that the philosopher may settle the true order of human obligations."
But he doesn't believe that association and pleasure/pain calculus are adequate to account for the psychology of morality. One must also admit innate, brain-born ideas or tendencies.
In a famous passage that recalls some of Dostoyevsky's work, James wrote that "if the hypothesis were offered of a world in which Messrs Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris' utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture," most people would feel that the enjoyment of such a utopia would be a "hideous thing" at such a cost. That feeling, he infers, must be brain born.
A world of only rocks would have no good or bad. A world with one thinking being in it would have plenty of good and bad -- some things would work out as that being wanted them, others wouldn't. It could even have moral conflict of a sort, as that one thinker may have trouble rendering his own ideals consistent with one another.
From such considerations, James concludes that "claim" and "obligation" are two sides of the same coin. Without a claim actually made by some concrete person there can be no obligation, but there is obligation wherever there is a claim.
"The various ideals [operating in the world] have no common character apart from the fact that they are ideals. No single abstract principle can be so used as to yield to the philosopher anything like a scientifically accurate and genuinely useful casuistic scale." How, then, shall I make choices? how shall I live?
James' answer is that history is resolving this problem for us, and our task is to co-operate in the process by which it does so, by which apparently irreconciliable demands are reconciled over time. One might say, although the terminology would be foreign to him, that he found his ethics within a pluralist meta-ethics.
The essay was also featured in: