An overview of theories.

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A.J. Ayer

Ethical statements are only statements that express emotion:

  • Moral statements are merely evincing expressions of approval or disapproval
  • There are no claims to any truth in these statements
  • Feelings have no factual significance
  • The use of these statements could be seen as meaningless

C.L. Stevenson developed Ayer's ideas:

  • Ethical statements are subjective opinions
  • Ethical statements don't merely describe emotion, they express comands and aim to persuade and influence others

Slogan - 'Boo/Hurrah'

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R.M. Hare

Ethical statements are prescriptive, they are universal and they are logically consistant:

  • Ethical language is intrinsically prescriptive
  • They express more than just personal opinion
  • They suggest what other people in similar circumstances should do and therefore universalise the prescribed principle
  • They do not condradict

J.L. Mackie argued that morals cannot be universal as ideas on morality vary from person to person (due to the subjective nature of morals and cultural differences)

Slogan - 'I do, you do, we all do'

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G.E. Moore

We understand basic moral principles using moral intuition. Ethical statements are statements made using intuition:

  • 'Good' cannot be defined using empirical knowledge and therefore 'good' is indefinable
  • Intuition is a moral sense that is based on experience rather than inference
  • Any attempt to define ethical statements based on the natural world commits naturalistic fallacy

H.A. Pritchard

  • We seem to always know what we ought to do in any given situation
  • Therefore intuition does not only help us recognise want is good but also what we ought to do
  • In a situation where moral intuition clashes, examine the situation and choose the greater obligation

Slogan - 'Use your intuition'

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Ethical Naturalism

The theory that goodness can be described and validated as true with reference to some objective part of the world independant of human opinions.

  • Relies on the use of empirical evidence to varify a statement
  • All statements, ethical or non-ethical, are factual
  • Moral features can be reduced to non-moral features

F.H. Bradley

  • To be a good person you need to carry out the duties that your position in society dictates

Slogan - 'Look to nature'

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Cognitivism and Non-cognitivism


Moral knowedge is possible. Therefore ethical statements can be meaningful beacuse they can be proved true or false as they have a factual basis.


There can be no ethical knowledge because ethical statements give no factual information. They are therefore meaningless because they are not subject to truth or falsity.

This means that ethical statements are either expressions of emotion, prescriptive comands or opinion.

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