I recently came across a book called Morality and Purpose by an interesting British moral philosopher, J.L. Stocks (1889-1937), via a reference to his work in Peter Winch's "Moral Integrity" (in his (1972) Ethics and Action). I was re-reading Winch as I plan to incorporate some of his ideas into a paper I'm now working on on moral conviction and integrity.
Stocks is an interesting figure for me because the general drift of his ideas resembles what some would now call "anti-theory" in ethics--often (though not exclusively) associated with "Wittgensteinian" moral philosophers, such as Winch (and also including Rush Rhees, D.Z. Phillips, and Cora Diamond). The value of Stocks' thought is that it predates the Wittgensteinian turn, as it were, and Stocks has some striking arguments to the effect that morality is not properly conceived as "purposive." Reading his essays "The Limits of Purpose" and "Is There a Moral End?" have helped me better understand what Winch is after in claiming that morality is not properly conceived of as a guide to action (in "Moral Integrity"). Winch does not deny that morality provides guidance, but what he does deny--which is expressed quite lucidly by Stocks--is the thought that morality has some grand, unified purpose, such as the greatest happiness for the greatest number, self-realization (human flourishing), or even the achievement of moral purity or perfection (to the extent that we might distinguish these from flourishing, as a Kantian might).
For Stocks, the problem with conceiving of morality as aiming at a purpose is that this divides action into means and end. That is, there is the goal of action, and if the goal is the purpose of morality, then the most efficient means to that end will be thereby justified. Most students of ethics will be familiar with the objections to the utilitarian conception of morality as purposive: if the only thing that matters is the greatest happiness, then we would be justified in doing terrible things to individuals if that turned out to produce the greatest overall happiness. Slightly more opaque is the objection to the Kantian conception of morality as guiding the production of a good will. The problem here is that overmuch concern for "doing one's duty" can itself lead to moral corruption; the person who visits a sick friend for the sake of duty itself is a less good friend than the person who visits because he cares about the welfare of his friend and wants to cheer him up! In that case, the proper end of the action (the visit) is the friend's welfare, not one's own moral perfection (by upholding one's duty). What about self-realization, or human flourishing? Same sort of problem. If the moral purpose of all action is the ultimate realization of one's "true self" (say), this end can pervert the nature of specific actions. Consider again the visit to the sick friend. It seems silly to say that the moral goodness of this action ultimately reduces to how it conduces to one's own flourishing.
There is no one purpose of morality. But what's interesting is that Stocks does not say there are many purposes. Rather, morality, like art, subjects purposive action to a different sort of evaluation, and seeks to assess the whole particular action--both its means and its end--to determine whether the whole thing is "in all its stages a fit expression of the human will" ("Is There a Moral End?" p. 80). So, the particular purpose of a particular action is an important part of moral evaluation, but moral evaluation is not a matter of determining whether the action properly serves some (or the) moral end because there is no moral end.
In "The Limits of Purpose" Stocks draws a careful comparison between art and morality and argues that the distinctive concerns of both involve something beyond mere concern with purpose. Art is not simply representation; the manner of style, intention, process, and so on are integral to an artistic evaluation of a work. Similarly, morality is not simply a matter of achieving some end. It is tempting to gloss Stocks' ideas by suggesting that morality is a concern with the human decency of one's actions. But either "human decency" is just a synonym for "morality" or human decency is set up as yet another end of human action, and one could provide a counterexample which shows that someone's obsessive concern with acting decently led them into a form of moral corruption. At the same time, I don't think this synonym is completely unhelpful, because it draws attention to the kind of concern Stocks thinks is distinctive of the moral attitude. A person refuses to take some profitable course of action on the perhaps hard to articulate grounds that it just seems indecent (or worse) to go down that road. (Think of the Father and Son in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, or the recent film adaptation. No pun intended.) The point of such a judgment, however, wouldn't be that taking that route would taint one's moral purity, or make one less happy, or conduce to less overall happiness, but rather, and simply, that it would be wrong to do it. This isn't to make morality out to be merely prohibitive, insofar as we might also judge that certain things ought to be done simply because it's the right thing to do (say, helping another person).
Stocks seems to be something of an intuitionist about moral judgments, insofar as he argues that there can be no arguing about the judgments themselves. But Stocks also acknowledges the essential role of our conceptions of ideal interpersonal relations and "spiritual" ideals in our conceptions of right action (in addition to our views about productive action and social development). (So, I don't see him as suggesting that our intuitive judgments necessarily reflect universal ideals or truths.) Any particular one of those conceptions and ideals may of course be subjected to philosophical scrutiny, but taken as a whole, the balance of our moral conceptions and ideals comprise our moral field and are (as the Wittgensteinians would say) our bedrock. What all of this comes to is an interesting response to the question, "Why be moral?" which is often interpreted as a demand that morality have a purpose. For Stocks, morality (like art) has no purpose; it is rather a texture embroidered into the many purposes we set out with in life, and to reject the significance of that texture is simply to reject (again, to put it in a Wittgensteinian idiom) our form of life. If that seems opaque, consider again the comparison to art: why care about art? Does anyone challenge art by asking, why be artistic (or, why seek to imbue one's activities with a certain artfulness)? Perhaps, but so much the worse for them!