The Nature of Ethical Language

Notes taken from Ethics and Religion by Joe Jenkins

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The Nature of Ethical Language (For Religious Studies)
3 kinds of language used in ethics:
Descriptive ethics describe the way we live and the moral choices we
make. Descriptivists simply present two facts, e.g.: `Seventytwo square
miles of desert appear on earth every day'. The actual information may be
correct or incorrect. It can be checked by referring to statistical
information, environmental reports and satellite pictures. However, the
statement does not make any moral claim about desertification, nor does
it say whether it is a good or bad thing. A statement such as `More money
is spent in armaments in one day than the world's two billion poorest
people have to live in one year' again simply states a fact. It does not
condemn or condone, nor even comment on this state of affairs. Some
philosophers, however, argue that descriptive ethics can sometimes
imply moral judgements by the way in which information is presented.
Prescriptive ethics are concerned with prescriptions and norms about
what is right and how people should live. Prescriptivists explore questions
such as `Should we act in our own selfinterest?' They might go even
further and come up with definite, though not always identical,
conclusions. E.g., when looking at issues around the environment they
may come up with certain prescriptions: `Given the evidence, a person
should always join movements that work against environmental
destruction and the arms trade' or `People ought to act in the interests of
the interests of the environment or boycott unethical businesses' or
`People should always act in the interests of all concerned, themselves
included' or `Desertification, leading as it does to famine and caused as
it is by the policies of the rich world, must be stopped by the adoption of
new policies by the rich world'. These conclusions are no longer
descriptions but have become prescriptions, i.e. they prescribe how
people should behave, not merely describe how they do behave.
Prescriptive ethics was considered an important part of ethics up until the
1930s when it became relatively neglected except for the occasional
discussions about utilitarianism. However, today, concerns about the
environment, genetic engineering and worldwide economic injustice has
meant that an increasing number of modern philosophers are looking for
universal prescriptions to contemporary moral issues.
Metaethics (analytical ethics) analyses ethical language. It looks at the
meaning of moral judgements and analyses the reasoning behind ethical
systems. It is concerned with the meaning of moral discourse and does
not prescribe anything nor provide descriptions, concentrating on
reasoning and language rather than on content. Instead of looking at
practical issues, metaethicists limit themselves to studying the nature of
morality and the meaning of moral judgements. During the twentieth
century, metaethics became a major preoccupation of many
philosophers, in part a result of the difficulties of formulating a system of
ethics in a pluralistic world.
Problems with the three types of ethical language:

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Descriptive ethics ­ sometimes facts can be mistaken for values. You
need to ask yourself what is the difference between a fact and a value?
Prescriptive ethics ­ by arguing passionately that things `ought' to be
different it is easy to fall into the trap of preaching.…read more

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