Ethical Language

Ethical language for RS A2, Edexcel

  • Created by: Charlotte
  • Created on: 21-05-09 08:55

Ethical Language

= Before moralists can attempt to establish what constitutes good or bad moral behaviour, they must define what morality is

= This is concerned with meta ethics, which examines the meaning of saying something is good/bad/right/wrong/immoral

= Meta ethical questions regarding ethical language require a normative answer

= A primary concern of meta ethics is whether ethical language can be said to have any meaning

= If we are unclear about the meanings of basic, ethical terms, we cannot make authoritative claims about the morality of particular actions

= If we are unsure of what we mean when we say something is wrong, ethical debate becomes difficult

= The word 'good' has many meanings, most of which are not used in a moral context

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Ethical Language (contd.)

= 'Ought' can also be used in different contexts, either focusing on a personal opinion of what one should do (a moral statement), and the other being the recommendation of a course of action based on objective facts

= 'Good' is used in relation to a set of standards and is a descriptive word

= We use it in this sense in accordance with our pre ordained standards of goodness

= In doing this, they are not expressing any preference or recommendation, so it is descriptive, and not prescriptive

= Using 'good' prescriptively means that we move from a factual statement to a value judgement

= Normative ethical theories attempt to offer a definition or description of good

= S A Burns identified 36 meanings of the word 'good', but observed that only one is open to philosophical disagreement; 'of moral excellence, upright'

= Functional definitions of good are tautologous

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Ethical Language (contd.)

= He also identified 24 meanings of the word 'right', again with only one being open to philosophical disagreement; 'conforming with or conformable to reality'

= Burns observed that most definitions could be interpreted as an evaluation of how well the subject of judgement measures up to the standard of fulfilling its purpose

= There are clear functional and moral definitions of good and right, and only the moral definitions pose problems

= Saying something is good from a moral perspective does not tell us why it is good

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Naturalistic Fallacy

= In 'Principa Ethica' (1903), G E Moore stated that a naturalistic fallacy is committed whenever a philosopher attempts to prove a claim about ethics through appealing to a definition of the term 'good' by using a natural property such as 'pleasing' or 'desirable'

= He argued that it is unacceptable to confuse 'good' with a natural or metaphysical property

= Naturalistic theories of ethics attempt to define good in terms of something which can be identified in the world or in human nature - these are non moral concepts as there is nothing intrinsically good about happiness, fitness or health - they are only good if we define them as such

= Such definitions are then open to question, as not everyone will agree that they are good

= Burns observed that if we offer a description or definition of 'good', it leads to the moral prescription that we should do what is defined as 'good'

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The 'is-ought' Gap

- If we adopt this approach, we effectively move to turn an 'is' into an 'ought' - the distinction between what 'is' (can be discovered through science, philosophy or reason), and what 'ought' to be (a judgement which can be agreed upon by consensus)

- A descriptive statement says how things actually are, describing facts about the world and items in it

- A prescriptive statement suggests that something 'ought' to be desired or done

- Hume's Fork - the observation that all statements are either matters of fact (derived from empirical observation) or relations of ideas (analytically true)

- This supports his claim that it is not possible to move from an 'is' to an 'ought' as the latter statements are not known in either category

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Making an 'ought' into an 'is'

- All attempts to make an 'ought' into an 'is' attempt to describe a situation which logically dictates what an idividual is then obliged to do

- In ethical terms, to say something is good, and therefore prescribe it as a moral action we should be obliged to perform is unconvincing as certain things may be good in some circumstances, but this alone is not sufficient to make them a matter of moral obligation

- Moore distinguished between natural facts which are known through the senses and moral facts which are known through intuition

- Values are not facts, but evaluations of facts

- Facts exist independently of human feelings, but values are dependent on them

- However, putative facts can be used to support value judgements, therefore values are not entirely independent on facts

- G E Moore defended ethical non naturalism, stating that 'good' is 'one of those inumberable objects of thought which are themselves incapable of definition, because they are the ultimate terms'

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Makin an 'ought' into an 'is' (contd.)

- Moore's position is often called the 'Open Question Argument' - our moral knowledge is not increased by the open answer to the question
- John Searle argued that it was possible to derive an 'ought' from an 'is' in the case of promising. If one says that they promise something, and take on the obligation of fulfilling that promise, speaking the words leads them to carry out their obligation to do so

= Proponents of intuitionism argue that ethical terms cannot defined, and G E Moore famously claimed that 'good' can be defined no more successfully than 'yellow'

= If we are asked to define a colour, we can only define it in terms of something else which possesses its qualities - we give examples of it but cannot define the colour itself

= Ethical values cannot be defined but are self evident and can be known by intuition

= Moore maintained that once arguments based on the naturalistic fallacy had been dismissed, questions of intrinsic goodness could only be settled by moral intuition

= He said that goodness resists definition because people have different moral opinions without logical contradiction

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+ Allows for objective moral values to be identified, proposing a form of moral realism

+ Does not promote a subjective or emotive approach to ethics, but avoids the problem of identifying ethics with a natural property

+ We interpret things through a moral sense, not a list of moral definitions

+ We can identify a moral sense in the same way as an aesthetic sense in art or literature - it is easy to do and comes naturally

+ Allows for moral duties and obligations, thus satisfying the moral absolutist

+ Points to the existence of a considerable common consensus on moral issues as evidence of a common intuition of morality

+ Intuition may be associated with the idea of conscience as a moral guide

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Intuitionism (contd.)


- People reason differently and there is no obvious way to resolve these differences

- We can't be sure that our intuitions are correct, and how reliable is experience as a guide?

- Intuition may be considered a meaningless concept as it is non verifiable

- Hume argued that we have a motivation for acting in certain ways, although intuitionists may respond to this with the suggestion that if we feel motivated towards a particular actionm it is because we have an innate desire to do it that goes beyond reason

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- Wittgenstein argued that as long as language is used within its right context, it is meaningful and useful

- Alistair MacIntyre defined emotivism as 'the doctrine that all evaluative judgements...are nothing byt expressions of preference'

- Often referred to colloquially as the 'Hurrah! Boo!' theory, the emotive theory of ethics stems from the work of the logical positivists, who sought to do away with all metaphysical language

- They deemed it to be beyond empirical verification and therefore meaningless

- Ethical claims were not designed to make factual claims but to invoke certain emotional responses

- A J Ayer stated, 'Exhortations to moral virtue are...commands...they do not belong to any branch of philosophy or science'

- According to the strict verification principle, on the grounds that ethical claims are neither analytically true nor capable of being empirically tested, they should be rejected as meaningless.

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Emotivism (contd.)

- Ethical claims based on personal preference can provide useful psychological and sociological material according to Ayer

- 'The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content' (Ayer)

- An emotivist view of ethical language evaluates the way we make ethical claims in the same way

- If someone seeks ethical advice, they are likely to hear persuasive statements based on the sentiments of the advice giver and their personal preferences

- Rudolph Carnap took a similar view, although he considered ethical claims to be commands

- If we maintain that ethical claims are commands from God then we are effectively adopting this view, whilst suggesting a rational reason for them being commands

- Bertrand Russell claimed that moral judgements express a wish

- R B Braithwaite maintained that they serve to bind the community together

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Emotivism (contd.)

- This is a non cognitive or anti realist view of language, which takes the stance that language does not make factually true claims, but serves some other function

- C L Stevenson argued that ethical judgements express the speaker's attitude and seek to evoke a similar attitude in their listeners

- He suggested that any ethical theory should explain 3 things;

> That intelligent disagreement can occur over moral questions
> That moral terms such as 'good' are magnetic in encouraging action
> That the scientific method is insufficient for verifying moral claims

- He also observed that there are 2 main ways of offering ethical argument:

> Logical, which aims to show inconsistencies in the speaker's position
> Rational psychological, which aims to show why a person is mistaken in their belief

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Absolutism and Situation Ethics

= J A T Robinson described the 'old, traditional morality' of Christianity - certain things are always 'wrong' and 'nothing can make them right'

= Robinson identified the divine command way of thinking which had dominated Christian morality since its inception

= Robinson and Joseph Fletcher believed that absolutism turned moral statements into statements of fact that were true irrespective of situations, and which brought about dire consequences if violated

= Situation ethics grew out of the need to make decisions ethically using the principle of agape rather than Divine Command

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The Cuture of Emotivism

- Emotivism goes further than this

- Alistair MacIntyre observes, 'Emotivism rests upon a claim that every provide a rational justification for an objective morality has in fact failed'

- Emotivism rejects absolutism because absolutism is an impossible position - there are no facts, empirical or metaphysical, which an ethical statement can assert

- For the emotivist, all that can be done is recognise the power to persuade that lies behind moral statements, but we should not be deceived into thinking that they have factual value

- Alistair MacIntyre argues that emotivism has become 'embodied in our culture'


>It highlights why moral disputes are impossible to resolve decisively
>It acknowledges, and in some way values, the existence of moral diversity
>It is true that moral opinions are often formed on the basis of gaining others' approval
>History reveals many examples of emotivist methods of expressing moral views, even if they are not verifiable

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Weaknesses of Emotivism

- Ethical statements are not usually judged according to the response of the listener, but on the claims themselves - its power does not simply lie in the responses of others

- If ethical claims were contingent on emotions, they would change as emotions changed. There cannot be universal claims as the emotions of different speakers would vary

- Even when moral statements are carried by a weight of public emotion, this does not provide reason for them to be adopted, nor does it make them right

- Emotivism effectively prescribes complete freedom of action on the basis that everyone's opinion is equally valid and everyone is therefore free to choose irrespective of others' opinions

- What criteria are there - if any - for judging the relative merits of a moral viewpoint?

- Emotions can unite people in a common moral bond, but can also isolate individuals and groups

- The emotional force with which a moral view is expressed is no recommendation of its value

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