As an individual, you can choose to deal with the ebb and flow of daily life in only three possible ways -
All intentional (as opposed to accidental or unconscious) choice, at whatever level of discourse, is predicated on the assumption that one alternative is "better" than another - on some scale of valuation. The universal assumption that underlies Ethics is that "Life will be Better" if you choose "the Right thing to do" or "the Right way to live". As discussed in the Introduction to this exploration of Ethics, the philosophical subject of "Ethics" is the study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral judgments or choices made by people. A person's "ethics" or "morals" consists of those rules, habits and/or standards that the individual uses to determine the right choices, the virtuous alternatives, and the righteous behaviours. Those rules, habits and/or standards that the individual uses to choose the alternatives they think are most likely to result in "better" consequences, however they choose to understand "better".
"Ethics" answers the question - "What should I do now?" or "What is the right thing to do?"
The philosophical disagreements arise over -
What do you mean by, and how do you measure "better" ?
Better how, when ?
Whose life will be better ?
What, particularly, is the "right thing to do"?
When it comes to the study of normative ethics, there are almost as many theories of how we should determine what we ought to do, as there are philosophers writing about the question. Fortunately, however, the large number of theories can be roughly divided into different categories by three key conceptual differences between them. These three conceptual differences can be illuminated by the answers that theorists provide to these three questions:
1. Realist versus
-- Are (some) moral statements true?
2. Social versus Personal Ethics
-- Who Benefits?
3. Deontological versus Consequentialist versus Virtue Ethics
-- What kind of thing has Moral Value?
Here is a simplified diagram of the relationships between a number of Ethical Theories that I intend to discuss at length in these essays.
Before I can discuss the various recognized theories of Ethics that are presented in the diagram above, and discussed in the Philosophical literature, I must deal with Subjectivist Ethics. Ethical Subjectivism does not warrant a place in the diagram of the various ethical theories, because Ethical Subjectivism is an anti-theory. (It is more than just a non-theory. It is a system of ethics that makes the positive claim that there is no possible theory.) Ethical Subjectivism is the acceptance of the Primacy of Consciousness. It is therefore a denial of moral reality (and in that sense might be grouped with the Non-Cognitivist Anti-Realist theories of Ethics). No one who pretends to live by the tenets of Subjectivist Ethics can claim to live by any ethical standards or principles.
Depending on the individual expressing the ethical opinions, Subjectivist Ethics can be compatible with both Cognitivism (in that the speaker can express the opinion that she is stating moral facts) and Non-Cognitivism (in that the speaker can express the opinion that there are no moral facts, only attitudes). It might also be compatible with Moral Absolutism (in that the speaker can hold certain of her moral opinions to apply regardless of circumstances) and Moral Relativism (in that the speaker can assert that the truth of moral claims is relative to the attitudes of the individuals making the claims). It stands in contrast to Moral Realism (under which ethical statements are deemed to be independent of personal attitudes). Subjectivist Ethics starts with a person's personal opinion on what is right or wrong, what is moral or immoral, what is good or evil. And that is where it stops. Subjectivist Ethics does not allow inquiries into why you might have these opinions. Allowing such investigations moves the moral agent towards Conventionalism or Contractualism or one of the other theories.
As we have explored, people have different opinions on moral matters. But Subjectivist Ethics maintains that there are no moral "facts of the matter" and no one is "right" in any objective sense. People just feel differently, and that is the end of it. Ethics becomes a matter of taste. I like chocolate and Abortion. You like pistachio and the Right to Life. There is no accounting for taste. You just have to tolerate the differences of opinion.
A person who adopts Subjectivist Ethics is necessarily morally infallible, because Subjectivist Ethics maintains that there are no objective moral properties or facts about which your opinions might be mistaken. Moral statements are made true or false by the attitudes of the moral agent. Any moral statement just implies an attitude, opinion, personal preference or feeling held by the speaker. For a statement to be considered morally correct merely means that it correctly reflects the opinions and attitudes of the person of interest.
David Hume is perhaps the best known philosophical advocate of ethical subjectivism. But by applying the processes of logic and the standards of logical consistency, philosophers have developed his moral approach into the non-cognitive theory of Emotivism. Emotivism departs from Subjectivist Ethics because it maintains a logically consistent doctrine that moral statement are not truth apt. Rather they should be understood as emotional exclamations. Jean-Paul Sartre, another well known personage, advocated subjectivist ethics as a form of moral relativism. For Sartre, social conventions might be an important input for directing one's moral conduct, but only one's individual moral conscience has any real authenticity as a source of moral truth. According to Sartre, all moral statements are true if the person stating them believes them to be true.
Ethical Subjectivism has the apparent advantage of providing a simple explanation of what morality is. "Morality is whatever I think it is!" To the moral agent, one's own ethical opinions often have the internal appearance of objectivity. When expressing moral judgments and opinions, it feels like making, or at least attempting to make, an objective statement. Ethical Subjectivists frequently believe their moral statements to be fact-stating. But this is an artifact of the assertive nature of most ethical statements. They very often have some implied factual implications. But since there is no fact of the matter beyond the moral agent's opinion, such statements cannot be considered as making an objectively true assertion.
The downside of Subjectivist Ethics is that there can be no discourse about disagreements of moral opinions. If you think that A (abortion, say) is right, then A is right for you. If I think that A is wrong, then A is wrong for me. Think back to the Ethical Relativism cointained in Blackburn's joke cited in the Introduction. The difference in attitudes is fundamental. There is no recourse but violence to resolve any conflict, because Subjectivist Ethics offers no way for the parties engaged in ethical debate to resolve their disagreements. If you think that Radical Islamic Terrorists are immoral and evil, that is just your opinion. You have no basis from which to argue that they are doing anything objectively immoral. More to the point, Subjectivist Ethics, by recommending toleration for different moral attitudes, actually generates moral intolerance. Subjectivist Ethics maintains that only my own moral opinions carry moral weight, and yours (if they disagree with mine) carry no weight at all in my moral judgments ("I am right! You are Wrong!"). Subjectivist Ethics thereby classifies your moral opinions as irrelevant to me, and vice versa of course. And if that is the case, then that demotes the importance of your interests and projects in my moral decisions. Is there any better source for mutual intolerance?
Subjectivism in Ethics is like Solipsism in Metaphysics. They both render discussion and argument irrelevant. The entire topic of Philosophy is rendered impotent. Resolving any disagreement in opinion can only be accomplished by violence. If you cannot tolerate the actions resulting from the other person's opinions, your only recourse is to kill him. But science, technology and philosophy are based on the assumption that there are truths out there, independent of our opinions. So Subjectivism is a denial of Reality.
The first conceptual distinction between the different kinds of ethical theories shown in this chart, is that between the Realist or Cognitivist theories and the Anti-Realist or Non-Cognitivist theories. The Cognitive Error Theories fall between the two extremes. The fundamental difference between the Realist and the Anti-Realist Ethical Theorist is that the Anti-Realist maintains that there are no moral properties or moral facts. The Realist maintains that there are moral properties and moral facts -- although various Realist philosophers hold differing views as to whether these moral facts are in any way similar to "scientific facts".
According to the Anti-Realist, moral language does not employ propositions and hence cannot employ propositions that are true. The Realist, on the other hand, maintains that moral language does employ propositions of which some are true. Another way of putting this is that the Anti-Realist maintains that moral statements are not truth-apt -- are not propositions that can have truth conditions. Whereas the Realist maintains that at least some moral statements do have truth conditions, and at least some of them are true. The Error Theorist sits in the middle -- agreeing with the realist that some moral statements employ propositions that are truth apt, but maintaining that none of these propositions are true.
Before briefly reviewing the arguments presented on each side of the debate
over the existence of moral facts, I must adopt two preliminary assumptions.
I recognize that these assumptions are contentious for many, but one must start
Assumption 1: a "fact" is something which is the case - the state of affairs reported by a true proposition.(1) Equivalently (an important equivalence), a "fact" is whatever it is in the world that renders a proposition true. Facts are "truth-makers" that need not correspond one-to-one with true propositions.(2) This understanding of "facts" is intended to be neutral as to their metaphysical and ontological nature. (Although see The Nature of Reality for a discussion of options and their consequences.)
Assumption 2: a "proposition" is the truth-apt sense or meaning of a statement irrespective of the words, sentence form, language, symbology employed, or its assertive status. There can be more than one way in English to say the same "thing". The same "thing" can be said in more than one language. And the same "thing" can be left unsaid, or even un-thought. And again, this understanding of "proposition" is intended to be neutral as to their metaphysical and ontological nature. But by limiting "propositions" to those "things" which can be "truth-apt", I am ruling out a propositional interpretation of such "things" as commands (prescriptions), or emotional expressions, and the like. Propositions are, by this definition, either true or false, irrespective of our ability to determine it.
Given these two preliminary understandings, the debate over whether there are moral facts can be seen as a debate over whether moral language can be understood in terms of propositions, and over whether there exist facts that would render such propositions true. Those who argue that there are moral facts are the Moral Realists. Those who argue that moral language can not be understood in terms of propositions are the Non-Cognitivists (Anti-Realists). And those who argue that there are no true moral propositions (and hence no moral facts) are the Cognitivist Error-Theorists.
I will begin with the arguments presented by the Moral Realists in support of the existence of moral facts, because these arguments are the more intuitively obvious. Common sense "folk" morality is learnt by children in the same manner as they learn their native language. They learn first that it is right or wrong to do certain things. Later they learn why it is right or wrong to do these things. And there are two ways of providing the why. The non-philosophical response is for some particular rule to be cited, with the backing of some Supreme Authority ("Because I said so!!"). The philosophical response is the provision of some non-moral description of the basis of moral rules. From a descriptive point of view, statistics would suggest that most people regard the basis of their moral codes as the dictates or commands of some Supreme Authority(3) -- be it a God (like for the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic religions), or a highly respected thinker like Gautama Buddha (Buddhism), Karl Marx or Vladimir Ulyanov (Marxism/Communism), Confucius (Confucianism), or Laozi (Taoism), or as revealed in sacred writings (like the Vedas and Upanishads of Hinduism). So if the meaning of moral language is determined in some part by how people actually use (or intend) the language, then clearly moral language is a cognitive descriptive exercise that can be captured by propositions. And clearly, some of these propositions are intended to be true.
As pointed out by Peter Glassen(4):
"That any sentence asserts anything, says anything that is true or false, etc., can be found out in no other way than by finding out what it is that the speaker of the sentence means by it, that is, what it is that he intends to convey by it and what it is that he is characteristically understood as conveying by it."(Pg 69)
"One may, if one pleases, argue that moral judgments cannot
be true or false, correct or mistaken; but the fact remains that in ordinary
moral discourse these epithets are applied to moral judgments, and their use in
this way does not at all seem to be Pickwickian*. This fact surely indicates
that in ordinary discourse moral judgments are intended to convey cognitive
meaning. How else could we account for it?"(Pg 65)
"If we ask, not 'Do moral judgments assert something?' but, 'Are moral judgments intended to assert something and are they so understood?', we must admit that moral discourse bears every evidence that those who engage in it do intend to assert something when they utter moral judgments and are understood as asserting something."(Pg 71)
Moral Realism thus embraces two basic theses:
(i) moral statements, when literally construed, are literally true or false (independently of whether we can determine it); and
(ii) at least some of these statements are true.(5)
There are many different flavours of Moral Realism, from the non-natural realism of G.E.Moore(6) to the naturalistic realism of Michael S. Moore(7). From the Conventionalism of Kekes(8) to the Contractarian Constructivism of Milo(9) and Rawls(10). Each variation would provide its own specific understanding of just what would constitute a "moral fact". But they are all in agreement that moral language is cognitively descriptive, can be captured by propositions, of which at least some are true. Hence, for Moral Realists, there are moral facts.
Moral Anti-Realism, or Non-Cognitivism (or sometimes "Non-Descriptivism", "Emotivism" or "Expressivism"), on the other hand, maintains that our "folk" understanding of moral language is grossly in error. Moral assertions, judgments, and so forth are not "things" that can be captured by propositions, and hence are not stuff for which truth-status is apt. Of course, like with the variations of Moral Realism, just how to understand moral language differs according to the variation of non-cognitivism preferred. The classic version of non-cognitivism is Emotivism.(11) Emotivism maintains that moral utterances (or thoughts) are not "things" to be captured in propositions but rather function primarily to express emotions, and to elicit the appropriate emotions in others. Emotivism has sometimes been called "The Hurrah!-Boo! Theory" because of its interpretation of positive moral statements as doing something similar to crying "Hurrah!", while negative statements cry "Boo!" The emergence of Logical Positivism and its verifiability criterion of meaning early in the 20th century led some philosophers to conclude that ethical statements, being in their opinion incapable of empirical verification, were cognitively meaningless.(12)
Non-Cognitivism owes its origins to the work of David Hume, who argued that reason was impotent, and that the passions alone were the well-springs of actions.(13) According to Hume, facts and propositions are the business of reason. Whereas moral valuations and moral sentiments are the business of the passions. Hence our moral judgments are not truth-apt. Hume famously raised what is called the "is-ought problem" (also known as Hume's Law or Hume's Guillotine).(14) He observed that many writers make claims about moral ought based on descriptive statements about what is. However, he argued, it is not at all obvious how we can get from making descriptive statements to prescriptive ones.(15)
Buttressing this reasoning was the work of G.E. Moore captured in what he called the "Naturalistic Fallacy".(16) Moore argued that the concept of "moral good" is indefinable because it names a simple, non-natural property. Based on this premise, he claimed that a "Naturalistic Fallacy" is committed whenever a philosopher appeals to a definition of the concept "moral good" in terms of one or more natural properties. While not strictly speaking a non-cognitivist argument, Moore's Naturalistic Fallacy has been combined with Hume's is-ought problem to reinforce the argument that since facts and propositions are about what is, and moral language is about what ought, there is no place for moral facts.
Another famous argument for the non-existence of moral facts is J.L. Mackie's "argument from queerness".(17) Mackie argued that if moral properties (i.e. "goodness") did exist, they would have to be different from the usual kind of property. Mackie's argument is that such moral properties have no discernable effect on the world. Is there any evidence that there is a property of "rightness" that morally right acts have? Most cognitivists argue that the attitudes we have when we consider moral actions and choices is evidence of the existence of the relevant moral property. But Mackie explains these feelings without saying that a moral property was their cause. Mackie presents a two threaded argument for his position. One thread is metaphysical and the other epistemological. (But since the epistemological argument is all about how we come to know anything about the queer metaphysical entities, we can ignore it if we can show that objective moral facts are not as queer as Mackie suggests.) Mark Timmons provides a usefully synopsized reconstruction of Mackie's metaphysical argument(18).
"Moral discourse purports to refer to intrinsically prescriptive properties and facts "that would somehow motivate us or provide us with reasons for action independent of our desires and aversions"(Timmons, pg 50). But such properties and facts do not accord well with the kind of philosophical naturalism that consists of the rejection of any properties or relationships that is not a part of the natural physical world that science investigates. Hence "they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe"(Mackie, pg38).
It is, however, unclear just what Mackie thinks that these objective moral properties might be. On the one hand, he says "Plato's Forms give a dramatic picture of what objective values would have to be"(Mackie, pg 39). But shortly thereafter, says "It may be thought that the argument from queerness is given an unfair start if we thus relate it to what are admittedly among the wilder products of philosophical fancy -- Platonic Forms, non-natural qualities, self-evident relations of fitness, faculties of intuition, and the like."(Mackie, pg 40-41) Mackie seems to think that at least some supervenience relationships required by a supervenience theory of moral realism are not susceptible of further explanation and are thus sui generis.(19) If he is right, that would make such relationships quite unlike any of the usual run-of-the-mill supervenience relationship -- like that of chemistry on physics, or biology on chemistry, for example. It would render them, in this narrow sense "queer" by comparison with the usual suite of supervenience relations. But any theological or utilitarian moral theory would provide an example that would refute Mackie's assumption. So the "argument from queerness" actually begs the question -- it requires as a prerequisite, the assumption either of Platonic realism, or of sui generis moral properties. Neither position is characteristic of contemporary moral realism.
A more recently popular version of non-cognitivism is the Prescriptivism of Carnap and Hare.(20) Arguments for prescriptivism focus on the function of normative statements. Prescriptivists argue that factual statements (propositions) and prescriptions are totally different. Rather than simply expressing emotions, Prescriptivism argues that moral statements express "universal prescriptions" or commands. Hence, as commands, moral statements are distinct from assertions, and are not truth-apt. Adjusting statements to reflect reality and adjusting reality based upon statements are contrary uses of language. So factually descriptive statement are a different kind of linguistic entity than are expressions of prescriptions or commands.
Prescriptivism, it is argued, is also supported by actual usage. We utter moral statements as de facto recommendations or commands. The most famous moral ideas are prescriptions: the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, Kant's categorical imperatives. These are not statements that something is the case or not, they are not things that can be true or false.
Different variations of non-cognitivist ethical theories would provide their own specific understanding of just how to understand moral language. But they are all in agreement that moral language is not in any literal sense cognitively descriptive. Even where they admit that moral language can be captured by propositions, they would argue that no such moral propositions are true. Hence there are no moral facts.
There are three key flaws that infect non-cognitivist moral theories. Not all of the many non-cognitivist variations are infected by all three flaws, however. Some of these variations have been specifically constructed to avoid one or more of them. But overall, as a class, the three flaws apply, and they indicate that Non-Cognitivist Morality is not likely to actually reflect the meaning that most people invest into their moral language. These three flaws are
(1) As Peter Glassen pointed out (as quoted above), except for non-cognitivist philosophers in their classrooms, people simply do not use or understand moral language in the way that non-cognitivist theories suggest they do. Even non-cognitivist philosophers, when not in their classrooms, use and understand moral discourse as if "those who engage in it do intend to assert something when they utter moral judgments and are understood as asserting something". So whatever it is that non-cognitivist moral philosophers are talking about, it is not kind of moral and ethical language used and understood by the rest of us.
(2) The non-cognitivist analysis of moral propositions suffers from what is called the "Imbedding Problem"(21) Consider the following example from Peter Geach(22):
(P1) If tormenting the cat is bad, getting your little
brother to do it is bad
(P2) Tormenting the cat is bad.
(C) Ergo, getting your little brother to torment the cat is bad.
This looks like the simple logical structure of a material conditional (p→q; p; ergo q.). But if the non-cognitivists are right, then the moral premise "tormenting the cat is bad" has to be translated into "Boo! to tormenting the cat." And such a statement is not truth-apt. So Geach's example must be understood as:
(P1) If Boo! to tormenting the cat, then Boo! to getting your
little brother to do it.
(P2) Boo! to tormenting the cat.
(C) Ergo, Boo! to getting your little brother to torment the cat.
This structure cannot be understood as a simple material conditional. Non-Cognitivists have great difficulty explaining the meaning of the logic involved here, and explaining the derivation of the concluding statement. This is just one simple example of the problem because there are many circumstances where apparently meaningful moral propositions are imbedded within more complex sentences. And looking at general run-of-the-mill moral discussions, these more complex sentences do appear be understood and invested with comprehensible meaning. Non-Cognitivists have difficulty in explaining this apparent meaning.
(3) The non-cognitivist analysis of moral language necessarily ignores the external causes of the posited emotional and prescriptive attitudes and reactions -- the "Deep Genesis Challenge". If you exclaim that "tormenting the cat is bad", then there must be something that inspired your "Boo!" reaction to tormenting the cat. If you can point to something that inspired your reaction, then you are pointing to some moral facts -- invalidating the non-cognitivist thesis. If, for example, you point to the similar reactions of other people in your social circle, then you are pointing to the moral fact that other people also think that tormenting the cat is bad. This puts you firmly into the Social Convention box of Realist theories. If you cannot point to anything that inspired your reaction, then you have to accept the notion that your emotional reactions are arbitrary and not relevant to the circumstances to which they are being applied. If, on the other hand, there is some sort of consistent connection between a situation and your Hurrah! or Boo! reaction, then you are back to joining the Realists in admitting the existence of moral facts.
Obviously, as evidenced by the chart shown above and the flaws I have identified in the Non-Cognitivist theories, it is the Realist Theories of Ethics that will occupy the remainder of this discussion. Evolutionary Pragmatism is a Realist Theory of Ethics. And to explain it (and understand it) properly it will be advisable to explore the faults of the various other competing theories.
Here are some additional essays pertinent to the question of the nature of "moral facts"
Are there moral facts?
Critically Assess the View that Moral Properties are Best Understood as like Secondary Qualities such as Colours and Tastes.
"If ethics is objective, then there should be widespread ethical agreement. But there isn't widespread ethical agreement. Therefore, ethics is not objective." Discuss.
'If there were objective values, then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe' (Mackie). Discuss
What would it be for morality to be objective?
The second conceptual distinction between the different kinds of ethical theories shown in this chart, is that between the Social conception of Ethics and the Personal conception of Ethics. (Obviously, this conceptual distinction applies only to the Realist ethical theories.) When studying the philosophical literature available on the subject of ethics, one of the more remarkable things that surfaces after a while, is that there are two different conceptions of morality being employed. And almost no one acknowledges that fact. So a lot of what passes for philosophical argument in the literature on ethics, is one philosopher talking past another because they are coming at the discussion with different concepts of morality.
The relationship between morality and self-interest is an enduring one in the history of philosophy. Whether acknowledged explicitly or not, the disctinction is at the center of disagreements between moral theories. It goes back to Plato's Republic(23). Plato believed that morality must be based on objective truth and must be reconciled with self-interest. In the Republic, Socrates and Thrasymachus debate the nature of justice (the moral thing to do). Thrasymachus claims that self-interest supports injustice, while Socrates argues that justice is ultimately in the interest of the individual. This is the first documented occurance of the Socratic or Personal conception of ethics. It takes as its starting point the question "How ought I to live?" (See Plato's Gorgias, 500c; Republic, 344e. See also especially Aristotle's The Nicomachean Ethics(24).) Answering this question in any depth will, of course, require one to consider how one will behave toward other people. But this conception of morality extends beyond our interactions with other people, to every significant aspect of our lives. Thus, contra the quote below from Paul Bloomfield, someone stranded alone on a desert island does face moral issues. The Socratic or Personal conception of morality does not distinguish between moral and prudential motivations. They are one and the same.
Kant, however, claims that morality ought to be followed anyway even if it is not in a person's interest.(25) This Kantian conception, is what I will call the Social or Altruistic conception of morality. It is a sense of morality that maintains that ethical principles are impartial and universal. In much of the modern philosophical literature on Ethics, it is the Kantian / Social / Altruistic conception of moral reasoning that seems to be the current standard understanding. As for example, these particular quotes:
"Morality is an informal public system applying to all rational persons, governing behavior that affects others, and has the lessening of evil or harm as its goal." Bernard Gert(26)
"It begins with the question of how one ought to behave toward others. Morality is seen as having a final authority over our lives and the interests of others play a necessary role in the decision procedures we ought to use. Where the interests of others are not at issue, morality does not come into play: there is no morality for an agent stranded alone on a desert island. Thus, on such a view, morality and justice, understood loosely to encompass all fair dealings between people, are often seen to have the same scope. Typically, on this conception, morality requires impartiality, such that agents must not see their own interests, or the interests of their families, communities, etc., as having any special standing whatsoever in the decision procedure that determines what ought to be done." Paul Bloomfield(27)
"A Central feature of morality is the moral principle. We have already noted that moral principles are practical guides to action that differ from legal statutes, rules of etiquette, and even religious rules. We must say a word about the features of moral principles. Although there is no universal agreement on which traits a moral principle must process, the following traits have received widespread attention: (1) prescriptivity, (2) universalizability, (3) overridingness, (4) publicity, (5) practicability." Louis Pojman(28.1)
It is clear that Bernard Gert conceives of morality in the Social or Altruistic (Kantian) mold -- with the impartial goal of minimizing "evil or harm" in its universal manifestation. Ethical behavior by a moral agent is behavior that affects others, and ethical recommendations are arrived at irrespective of the agent's own self-interests. Likewise, Paul Bloomfield is characterizing the "standard conception" of morality as Kantian and Altruistic in nature. And he emphasizes the impartiality condition that disallows any special consideration for the self-interests of the moral agent. Sentiments echoed by Louis Pojman.
The primary beneficiary of Social or Altruistic Morality is the Other -- society in general, or other individuals, as long as it is not the moral actor. Although the moral actor may benefit from being moral, it is not the primary motivation for being moral. To use Kant's famous example -- if a shopkeeper does not cheat her customers because she thinks it is in her own best interests to be honest, then she is not acting morally. But if she does not cheat her customers because she understands that being honest is her duty, then she is acting morally. Even though the end result of both motivations is the same. Those with a Social or Altruistic conception of morality separate the motivations for behavior into "moral" and "prudential" reasons. Prudential reasons are those that appeal to self-interest (it being readily assumed by all parties that self-interest is inherently motivating). Moral reasons are not prudential reasons. The Altruistic or Social conception of morality pointedly highlights the question "Why Be Moral?" Answering this question with a truly motivating answer is a major challenge for any theory of ethics from the Altruistic conception. Especially since any prudential reason is ruled out-of-court from the start.
Another dimension of this distinction between the Social or Altruistic conception of morality and the Socratic or Personal conception of morality, is the distinction between the Agent-Neutral versus the Agent-Relative conception of morals. Many philosophers believe that moral and ethical rules and principles should be impartial across moral agents -- in other worlds, should be "agent-neutral". According to this assumption, moral rules ought to apply equally to all. There should be no special consideration for the acting moral agent. Kant’s concept of the "Categorical Imperative" is the arch-type of this principle. Many philosophers would agree with Kant, that moral principles ought to be Universalizable and Impartial. Because Deontological moral theories are all about absolute agent-neutral rules of behavior, Deontological moral theories are all more or less Kantian in this respect.
The degree to which this attitude is ingrained in, and unquestioned by many moral philosophers, is evidenced by the way that Samuel Scheffler condemns all Consequentialist moral theories by using the attributes of traditional act Utilitarianism.(28.2)
“Act-consequentialism is not the only kind of consequentialism; other variants include rule-consequentialism and motive-consequentialism. These views typically differ somewhat from act-consequentialism in what they require of agents, though they share with act-consequentialism the feature of ranking overall states of affairs impersonally, and the general idea that the best states of affairs are somehow to be promoted.”(28.2, Pg: 2)
As you can see, Scheffler is assuming here that all forms of Consequentialist Morality includes the Kantian proviso of impartiality and universalizability. But of course, in actual fact, whether a particular form of Consequentialist or even Utilitarian morality does include this Kantian assumption depends critically on what the particular theory maintains should be maximized.
In contrast to the Agent-Neutral conception of Impartiality is the Agent-Relative conception held most obviously by those of the Virtue Ethics school of morality. The various permutations of Virtue Ethics theory maintain that the aim of morality is the achievement of "The Good Life" on the part of the moral agent. So what matters is the agent-relative moral status of the individual agent. But there are some agent-relative versions of Consequentialist morality. Traditional Utilitarianism, for example, maintains that an act is recommended only if it maximizes overall "utility". Such a theory is, of course, agent-neutral (impartial). This means that it does not readily accommodate various agent-relative features of common sense morality, such as agent-centered options and agent-centered constraints. Consider the common sense constraint against murder. This constraint is agent-relative because it constrains the options available for the agent regardless of how it affects the overall maximization of "utility". Rule-Utilitarianism, in contrast, is an agent-relative theory because it maintains that the agent has the moral aim of ensuring that her own behavior adheres to the rules, regardless of the impacts on overall "utility". Egoism, as another example, is also an agent-relative theory since it maintains that an act is recommended only if it maximizes the agent’s own "utility".
In the following discussions of particular Ethical theories, you are going to notice that different theories land on one side or the other of these Social versus Personal and Agent-Neutral versus Agent-Relative divides. It all comes down to how these particular theories actually answer the challenge of "Why Be Moral?" If they appeal to self-interest, they land on the Personal side of the divide. If they offer another reason, they land on the Social side of the divide. If they are concerned with the individual agent's welfare, they land on the Agent-Relative side of the divide. If not, then they land on the Agent-Neutral side of the divide.
Which brings us to the third conceptual distinction between the different kinds of ethical theories. (Obviously again, this conceptual distinction applies only to the Realist ethical theories.) It distinguishes between what are called teleological, or consequentialist theories, and what are called deontological, or authoritative command, or non-consequentialist theories. The set of theories called Virtue Ethics sits alone to one side of this central distinction. It is necessary to point out that moral judgments are made about those actions that involve choice. It is only when people have possible alternatives to choose between that we conclude that their actions are either morally good or morally bad. This level of distinction between Realist ethical theories is based on the difference between standards of behavior and habits of character. Deontological and Consequentialist ethical theories are about standards of behavior. Virtue ethics theories are about habits of character.
When we form a moral judgment, we are employing ethical standards -- principles against which we compare what we see, do, or plan to do, in order to form a moral conclusion. Such judgments might be about particular conduct, which includes a person's actions, or it might be about a person's character, which includes their attitudes and beliefs. One of the most important characteristics of moral judgments is that they express our values. Not all expressions of values are also moral judgments, but all moral judgments do express something about what we value. Thus, understanding morality requires investigating what people value and why.
There are two ways to justify moral beliefs and moral judgments. One is to stand on principle. This is deontological ethics. Standing on principle is supposed to be independent of factual belief or rational analysis. According to deontological ethics, it does not matter whether your moral position will result ultimately in good or bad outcomes for you or the world at large. According to deontological ethics, a moral stand is justified by principled beliefs about the moral value of the act rather than any descriptive beliefs about its consequences. For Deontological Ethics, it is the act that possesses Moral Value. What separates the different Deontological theories is the how the set of "good" acts are chosen.
The other way to justify moral beliefs and judgments is to focus on consequences. Consequentialism is a kind of rational moral calculus. A moral position or judgment is justified on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis. Crucial to such analyses are factual beliefs about the likely consequences to be expected. The only ethical principle involved is that the morality of acts should be based on an analysis of consequences. For Consequentialist Ethics, it is the consequences of acts that possess Moral Value. Once that consequentialist position is adopted, moral evaluations are simply a matter of the empirical facts of the situation. What separates the different Consequentialist theories is the particular choice of criteria for identifying "good" consequences.
Virtue Ethics, on the other hand, is not about justifying moral beliefs or moral judgements. Virtue Ethics groups theories that emphasize the role of character and virtuous motivation rather than either doing one's duty (deontology) or acting in order to bring about good consequences (consequentialism). A virtue ethicist is likely to give you this kind of moral advice: "Act as a virtuous person would act in your situation."(29).
So with the preliminaries dealt with, let us now delve into the particulars of the various ethical theories outlined in the chart above.
(i) Divine Command Ethics
(ii) Natural Law Ethics
(iii) Kant's Categorical Imperative
(iv) Intuitionist Ethics
(v) Social Conventionalism
(vi) Social Contractualism
(i) Classic Utilitarianism
(ii) Welfare Utilitarianism
(i) Ethical Egoism
(iii) Evolutionary Ethics
An individual can deal with the ebb and flow of daily life (the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune(30)) in only three possible ways -
You can sit there and do nothing, waiting for and taking whatever lumps the flow of events might bestow upon you -- the life strategy typical of plants and couch potatoes;
You can act at random, without thought for the consequences, and hope for the best (however you choose to understand "best") -- the life strategy typical of "non-rational" animals, and those whose life strategy is to "go with the flow"; or
You can try to understand and predict (locally, and however approximately) the flow of events and choose to act in ways that appear to you to most likely result in "better" consequences (however you choose to understand "better") -- the life strategy typical of "rational" animals (and Hamlet(30)).
All intentional (as opposed to accidental or unconscious) choice, at whatever level of discourse, is predicated on the assumption that one alternative is "better" than another - on some scale of valuation. The universal assumption that underlies all of the various theories of Ethics is that "Life will be Better" if you choose the "right thing to do". "Ethics" is the study of the general nature of morals and of the specific moral judgments or choices to be made by a person. A person's "ethics" or "morals" consists of those rules, habits and/or standards of behavior or character that the individual uses to determine the right choices, the virtuous alternatives, and the righteous behaviours. Those rules, habits and standards are what the individual uses to evaluate and choose the alternatives they think are most likely to result in "better" consequences, however they choose to understand "better".
What should I do (now)? I should do what I ought to do!
And what ought I do ? I should seek out that course of action that would be for the best.
And how can I determine which of the alternatives I can envision is for the best?
I must appeal to my conception of "Good" or "Right" to evaluate the desirability of the alternatives. And I must appeal to my catalog of ethical pre-judgments for rules-of-thumb or guidelines that may apply to simplify or guide or dictate my choices.
"Ethics" answers the question - "What should I do now?" or "What is the right thing to do?"
The philosophical disagreements arise over -
Whose life will be better ?
Better when ?
What do you mean by "better"?,
How do you determine "better" ?
What, particularly, is the "right thing to do"?
Despite the summary chart shown above, and the accompaning series of essays, the history of philosophical ethics reveals twenty-four fundamentally different approaches to the notion of Ethics. And as far as I can tell from a non-exhaustive search of the philosophical literature, just about every one of these possibilities has been supported by one philosopher or another. How you answer these three key questions, will place you in one of the 24 different conceptions of Ethics, and in one of the boxes on the chart above.
When you ask most (non-philosopher) people "How
do you determine which is the better alternative?" their answer will always fall
into one of:-
1. Whatever action best adheres to the established Rules. (Deontology)
2. Whatever action best achieves the desired consequences. (Consequentialism)
3. Whatever action best exemplifies a high moral character. (Virtue Ethics)
When you ask "Whose life will
be better if you do the right / ethical / moral thing?" their answers will
reveal two fundamentally different notions of the intended beneficiary of
1. My life will be better if I do the right thing. (A Personal conception of Morality)
2. Everybody else’s life will be better if I do the right thing. (A Social / Kantian / Altruistic conception of Morality)
When you ask "What do you mean by life being better?
Better How?" their answers will reveal two fundamentally
different scales of measurement according to which a "better" life is
1. Spiritual Well-Being (The religious scale of measure.)
2. Material Well-Being / Standard of Living (You will be happier, more content, more successful, wiser, better, or something of the sort that can be approximated by economic measures of a standard of living.)
And when you ask "Where and When
will life be better?" their answers will reveal two fundamentally different
notions of the time and place where things will be better if you do the right /
ethical / moral thing:-
· 1. The Here and Now (The quality of life will improve in the here and now, either spiritually or materially.)
· 2. The There and Then (The Heaven and Hell approach.)
For those who conceive of "Ethics" and “Morality” from the basis of one of these 24 notions, theirs is the one and only "obvious" source of true and right Ethics. The other twenty-three notions are obviously wrong, invalid, non-existent or illogical (and sometimes heretical and sinful).
Regrettably, it is impossible for rational argument to shift an individual's fundamental notion of Ethics. Logic cannot be persuasive in this realm, because the underlying premises of the 24 different notions are quite incommensurate. A discussion of any ethical topic, including Ethics itself, will quickly degenerate to emotionalism. And, if allowed to progress too far, inevitably into violence.
*Pickwikian -- "(of words or ideas) meant or understood in a sense different from the apparent or usual one." [http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/pickwickian].
(1) Wikipedia contributors; "Fact." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL=<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fact>
(2) See for example: Frege,
Gottlob; "The thought: a logical inquiry" in P.F. Strawson (ed.)
Philosophical Logic (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1967);
Mellor, D.H.; The Facts of Causation (London:Routledge 1995);
Austin, J.L.; "Unfair to Facts" in Austin, Philosophical Papers (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1961);
Davidson, Donald; "True to the Facts" in Davidson, Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1984).
(3) Congress of World and Traditional Religions, URL=<http://www.religions-congress.org/content/view/130/35/lang,english/>
(4) Glassen, Peter; "The Cognitivity of Moral Judgments" in Mind 68, No 269 (Jan 1959), Pgs 57-72.
(5) Sayre-McCord, Geoffrey; Essays on Moral Realism, Cornell University Press, Cornell, New York, 1988. ISBN: 0-8014-9541-5. Pg 5.
(6) Moore, G.E.M.; Principia Ethica, 1903. URL=<http://fair-use.org/g-e-moore/principia-ethica>.
(7) Moore, Michael S.; "Moral
Reality Revisited" in Michigan Law Review, Vol 90, No 8 (Aug 1992), pp
(8) Kekes, John; "Moral
Conventionalism" in American Philosophical Quarterly, Vol 22, No 1 (Jan 1985),
pp 37-46, URL=
(9) Milo, Ronald;
"Contractarian Constructivism" in The Journal of Philosophy, Vol 92, No 4 (Apr
1995), pp 181-204, URL=
(10) Rawls, John; A Theory of Justice, Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005, ISBN 978-0674017726.
(11) See for example: Hume, An Enquiry
Concerning the Principles of Morals;
Carnap Philosophy and Logical Syntax, 1937;
Stevenson, Ethics and Language, 1944;
Ayer, Language Truth and Logic, 1952.
(12) Wikipedia contributors; "Emotivism." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL=<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotivism>.
Here also are Carnap and Ayer -
"Most philosophers have been deceived [by the seeming fact that moral judgments often take the form of an assertive proposition] into thinking that a value statement is really an assertive proposition, and must be either true or false. . . . But actually a value statement is nothing else than a command in a misleading grammatical form . . . it is neither true nor false. It does not assert anything and can neither be proved nor disproved." Carnap, Rudolf; Philosophy and Logical Syntax, Psyche Miniatures, General Series no. 70 as quoted in Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., London,1935), Pg 24-25.
"[Moral judgments] have no objective validity whatsoever. If a sentence makes no statement at all, there is obviously no sense in asking whether what it says is true or false. And we have seen that sentences which simply express moral judgments do not say anything. They are pure expressions of feeling . . . ." Ayer, A.J.; Language, Truth and Logic, Dover Publications, New York, New York, 1952. Pg 108.
(13) "In moral deliberations we must be
acquainted beforehand with all the objects, and all their relations to each
other; and from a comparison of the whole, fix our choice or approbation. …
While we are ignorant whether a man were aggressor or not, how can we determine
whether the person who killed him be criminal or innocent? But after every
circumstance, every relation is known, the understanding has no further room to
operate, nor any object on which it could employ itself. The approbation or
blame which then ensues, cannot be the work of the judgement, but of the heart;
and is not a speculative proposition or affirmation, but an active feeling or
sentiment." Hume, David; "Appendix I. Concerning moral sentiment" in An
Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, URL=
(14) Wikipedia contributors. "Is--ought problem." in Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. URL=<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Is%E2%80%93ought_problem>.
(15) "In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, 'tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it." [Hume, David; A Treatise of Human Nature. Book III, Part I, Section I, London: John Noon. p. 469.
(16) Moore, G.E.M.; Principia Ethica,
(17) Mackie, J.L.; Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, Pelican Books, New York, New York, 1977. ISBN 0-14-013558-8.
(18) Timmons, Mark; Morality without Foundations: A Defense of Ethical Contextualism, Oxford University Press, New York, New York, 1999. ISBN: 019511731X.
(19) Shepski, Lee; "The Vanishing Argument from Queerness" in Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Vol 86, No 3 (2008), Pg 371-387.
(20) See for example: Carnap, Philosophy and Logical Syntax, 1937. Hare, The Language of Morals, 1952.
(21) van Roojen, Mark; "Moral Cognitivism vs.
Non-Cognitivism" in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014
Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL=
(22) Geach, P.T.; "Assertion" in Philosophical Review, Vol 74 (1965):Pg 463.
(23) Plato; The Republic. (trans.) B. Jowett; Oxford University Press, London England. 1871-1931. URL=<http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/plato-dialogues-vol-3-republic-timaeus-critias#lf0131-03_head_001>.
The Nicomachean Ethics, Translated
and introduced by David Ross, revised by J.L. Ackrill and J.O. Urmson;
Oxford University Press,
(25) Kant, Immanuel. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, New York. 2005. ISBN 0-486-44309-4.
(26) Gert, Bernard, Morality: Its Nature and Justification, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
(27) Bloomfield, Paul (Ed.); Morality and Self-Interest, Oxford University Press, new York, New York, 2008. ISBN 978-0-19-530585-2.
(28.1) Pojman, Louis P. & Fieser, James; Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong (7th Ed.), Wadsworth Cengage Learning, Boston, Mass. 2012. ISBN 978-1-111-29817-3.
(28.2) Scheffler, Samuel; The Rejection of Consequentialism: A Philosophical Investigation of the Considerations Underlying Rival Moral Conceptions, Clarendon Press, Oxford, England. 1982 ISBN 0-19-823511-9.
(29) Quine, W.V.O.; "On the Nature of Moral Virtues" in Critical Inquiry, Vol 5 No 3 (Spring, 1979), URL=<http://www.jstor.org/stable/1342996>. Pp 471-480]
(30) Shakespeare; Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1,
Hamlet: "To be, or not to be- that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them."