Monday, November 18, 2013

Ethics in Modern Analytic Philosophy

This post is based on Chapter 8 of Stephen P. Schwartz’s A Brief History of Analytic Philosophy: from Russell to Rawls (2012). I also draw on some of my earlier posts, and discuss the influence of George E. Moore on John Maynard Keynes.

For a long time, George E. Moore’s Principia ethica (Cambridge, 1903) – mainly a work of metaethics – was the most influential treatise on ethics in analytic philosophy. Under the influence of logical positivism, ethical statements were widely considered either not to be objectively true or to not have cognitive content at all (that is, to not have a true or false value) (Schwartz 2012: 264).

One of Moore’s most important conclusions was that the concept of “good” was a simple, non-natural and indefinable property (Schwartz 2012: 266–267). Nevertheless, our notions of the “good” are apprehended by our moral intuitions (Schwartz 2012: 267).

According to Moore, all naturalist ethical theories commit the “naturalistic fallacy,” which is the attempt to equate “goodness” with a natural property (Schwartz 2012: 268).

Note that the “naturalistic fallacy” is not simply a crude fallacy called the “appeal to nature,” which is the assertion that what is natural is therefore inherently moral. Nor is the “naturalistic fallacy” the same as Hume’s “is–ought” problem.

Moore’s “naturalistic fallacy” consists in the fallacy of identifying the property of goodness with some natural property or thing.

For example, one could say:
(1) Pleasure is good.
This is a proposition, but it has two possible meanings, as follows:
(1) Pleasure is a thing that has the independent property of being good.

(2) Pleasure is identical with the concept “good.” That is, they are one and same thing.
In order to understand what Moore means, we must understand the somewhat confusing grammatical differences in the way the word “is” is used in English.

The verb “is” has 3 possible grammatical uses in English:
(1) to convey identity, e.g., “He is John” (They are one and same thing);

(2) predication (as the so-called copula or linking verb), e.g., “This desk is white” (that is, this desk has the property of being “white,” but obviously the “desk” per se is simply not the same thing as “white”), and

(3) existence or being, e.g., “There is a high mountain two miles from here” (that is, there exists a mountain that is two miles from this location).
Just because we can use the word “good” with “is” in sense (2), Moore says, it does not follow that anything supposedly having the property goodness can be identified with the “good” in sense (1) (that is, identity). To assert that anything natural x is actually identical with the “good” in sense (1) is the “naturalistic fallacy.”

As noted above, Moore therefore contends that the “good” is an ineffable and non-natural property, even though Moore did think the “good” was real and that good and bad conduct has a rational basis: Moore thought that personal affection and appreciation of the beautiful are intrinsically good (Schwartz 2012: 268–269).

Moore thought that actions that create the most good are right, but that people cannot necessarily know which actions these are (Schwartz 2012: 269).

Moore’s Principia ethica greatly influenced the Bloomsbury Group and John Maynard Keynes (Schwartz 2012: 269). Keynes in particular was concerned with how we can have knowledge of the consequences of our actions in order to produce morally good ends, and the epistemological status of this knowledge and how it is acquired (Skidelsky 1983: 151). Keynes’s answer was that our knowledge must be probabilistic, since we cannot obtain certainty in knowing all future consequences of actions in the present (Skidelsky 1983: 151). Keynes’ interest in this subject dates from a paper he read to the Cambridge Apostles group called “Ethics in Relation to Conduct” (delivered on 23 January, 1904).

Thus Keynes’ concern with consequentialist ethics, via Moore, was the great inspiration of Keynes’ work on probability theory that occupied much of his spare time between 1906 and 1914, and that resulted in the Treatise on Probability (1921) (Skidelsky 1983: 151–152). Keynes contended that we cannot have certain knowledge of the future, especially the far future, and that non-objective probabilistic arguments should be used to defend ethical actions (Skidelsky 1983: 153).

Nevertheless, to return to the main subject, it is far from clear that Moore was right in his fundamental views on ethics, and analytic philosophers still debate Moore’s arguments (Schwartz 2012: 268).

A fundamental distinction between modern ethical theories is that between (1) cognitivist and (2) non-cognitivist theories, which can set out as follows:
(1) Non-cognitivism
(1) Emotivism (Spinoza, Hume, C. L. Stevenson, A. J. Ayer)
(2) Prescriptivism (R. M. Hare)
(3) cognitivist expressivism (S. Blackburn; M. Timmons; T. Horgan)
(2) Cognitivism
(i) Anti-realism
(a) Moral subjectivism
(b) Error theory

(ii) Moral realism
(a) Ethical naturalism
Non-theological natural rights theory
neo-Aristotelian ethical naturalism (P. Foot; R. Hursthouse)

(b) Ethical non-naturalism
G. E. Moore ethical intuitionism/agathistic consequentialism
Platonist ethics
divine command ethics
Kantian ethics
The cognitivist theories of ethics – which include most of the historical normative ethical theories – hold that moral statements do have real cognitive content and can be true or false (either in an objective or subjective sense).

The non-cognitivist theories of ethics contend that moral statements do not actually express propositions and have no truth values, and instead have a non-cognitivist, emotive or imperative meaning. That is to say, an ethical statement expresses an emotive judgement or attitude of approval or disapproval towards an action or idea.

This “emotivist” view of ethics was taken by some of the logical positivists, such as A. J. Ayer.

Another non-cognitivist theory of ethics is the prescriptivism of Richard M. Hare (1919–2002), who was an Oxford philosopher under the influence of post-WWII ordinary language philosophy (Schwartz 2012: 272). According to prescriptivism, the moral statement is really a special kind of command (or imperative). Sentences with the word “ought” (“You ought not to steal”) really conceal an imperative, a command.

The conclusion of R. M. Hare is that a moral statement is not really a declarative sentence that can carry a truth value (that is, being either true or false). We are mistaken in thinking this. Moral statements are really just commands, and they urge action. Many moral injunctions are really universalisable imperatives (Schwartz 2012: 274). That is, they invoke types or kinds and are addressed to the world at large, to people in general.

Hare also argued that moral action can be debated rationally because moral discourse is fundamentally about logic of imperatives and how to achieve ends (Schwartz 2012: 274).

From the 1960s onwards, substantive normative ethics experienced a rebirth in analytic philosophy (Schwartz 2012: 264).

The first development was the counterargument that Moore’s naturalistic fallacy is not a logical fallacy at all, and that his “open question” argument is seriously inadequate (Schwartz 2012: 275).

Foot (1958), for example, contended that definitions of the “good” cannot be arbitrary and people can readily identify definitions of the good based on self-interest as unsatisfactory. The “good” can be connected with things that are worthwhile, beneficial or valuable in a general or universal way (Schwartz 2012: 277).

The next obstacle to an analytic normative ethics was the “fact” versus “value” dichotomy (Schwartz 2012: 279), a divide which was challenged by Philippa Foot.

The results of these new criticisms of older ethical ideas led analytic philosophers to return to normative ethics and applied ethics by the late 20th century (Schwartz 2012: 280–281).

For example, new forms of consequentialism have been proposed, and Philippa Foot and G. E. M. Anscombe have developed a modern form of virtue ethics (inspired by Aristotle), which emphasises moral character rather than moral “oughts” (Schwartz 2012: 280).

John Rawls (1921–2002) developed a form of human rights ethics in terms of a social contract theory in A Theory of Justice (1971), which sought to reconcile elements of Kantian ethics with utilitarianism, while overcoming the shortcomings of them both (Schwartz 2012: 285–286). Rawls’s ethics has also been criticised and developed by Martha Nussbaum.

But, by the end of the 20th century, anti-realism in ethics made a return in analytic philosophy. Moral fictionalism is the idea that all moral claims either do not have truth values or are false: morality is thus a useful fiction (Schwartz 2012: 317).

In short, modern analytic philosophy has explored a wide range of normative ethical theories, as well as criticising traditional ethics.

Foot, Philippa R. 1958. “Moral Arguments,” Mind 67: 502–513.

Moore, George Edward. 1903. Principia ethica. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Rawls, John. 2005 [1971]. A Theory of Justice. Belknap Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Schwartz, Stephen P. 2012. A Brief History of Analytic Philosophy: From Russell to Rawls. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, UK.

Skidelsky, R. J. A. 1983. John Maynard Keynes: Hopes Betrayed 1883–1920 (vol. 1). Macmillan, London.


  1. Does "Boo emotivism!" count as a performative contradiction?

    MacIntyre's After Virtue contains what I have been assured is a scathing critique of emotivism. I've secured a copy, but have not as yet had time for a peek.

  2. There is a simple way we get around the is ought problem and even the naturalistic fallacy, to consider all possible worlds, or since our knowledge is imperfect, all possible worlds we can imagine, only then can we discover natural NORMATIVE law. (As opposed to POSITIVE natural law, which I agree falls victim to the is ought fallacy and the naturalistic fallacy.

    First Define the good, or a goal that everyone seems to agree is worthwhile. (For me its life and liberty, as well as happiness)
    Second try to discover and predict as best you can which actions will result in which consequences, and group them into rules of conduct
    Third, live the moral life as best you can.

    The secret, or get out of jail free card for ethical naturalists like me, is to combine facts and counterfactuals, and have a goal in mind in order to determine objective morality