Theme 1 Ethics D,E,F


Ethical Naturalism

It is the view that:

  • Ethical terms can be defined or explained using the same ‘natural’ terms that we would use to define mathematics or science 

  • Morals could be based on the same kind of observation of the world as used in science

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Objective moral laws

Objective moral laws exist independently of human beings

Naturalists claim ‘good’ can be:

  • Known independent of human opinion

  • Verified or falsified 

  • Observable 

  • Intrinsic to certain items/actions

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Ethical Statements

  • Ethical Naturalists treat ethical statements in the same way as any other statement about the natural world 

  • The statements are cognitivist 

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  • Means we can check and then know that the statements contain facts about the world 

  • Naturalists would say this is the most accurate way of doing ethics 

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Cognitive Statements

  • Objective 

  • Can be checked with empirical evidence 

  • Factual if true

  • True or false

  • E.g. Trees absorb carbon dioxide

  • Murder is wrong (Ethical Naturalists)

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Non-Cognitive Statements

  • Subjective

  • Have no method of checking

  • Not factual

  • Not true or false 

  • E.g. ‘to thine own self be true’

  • Murder is wrong (Emotivists)

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Verified moral statements

  • Once an ethical statement has been verified as true, this means that it is an objective fact and true regardless of opinion

  • It can be applied universally to all people regardless of culture or situation

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Verified moral statements: Mill and Aquinas

  • Mill: the objective truth is that goodness is the same as what makes people happy 

  • Aquinas: the fact is that goodness is what is consistent with God’s created purpose

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Bradley rejected:

  • Hedonis- pleasure does not lead to self-understanding (Utilitarianism)

  • Duty for duty’s sake- it is a false abstraction (Kantian Ethics)

He attempted a fusion of the best aspects of each of these approaches. Ethical statements express facts about the world, our position in society and thus our moral duty. To be moral is to live according to our position in society

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Objective features of the world

Objective features of the world make properistions true or false 

  • Human beings are not isolated egos

  • We can know what is good or bad by observing objective features of our world, and our place in society

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Influenced By Hegel

  • Bradley thought that self-fulfilment would be achieved through understanding and then satisfying our role in our family and community, to achieve unity with God. This is our moral duty that can be found by observing the empirical world 
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Meta-ethical statements: Scientific terms

  • We can know our societal role by observation and analysis of the society in which we live 

  • We can observe the destruction nature of some acts and deduce that these acts are wrong 

  • Equally, we can observe constructive acts and deduce that they are right and therefore they are our duty

  • so , moral statements are cognitivist because they are observable and analysable through reference to the empirical world

  • Ethics is a branch of scientific investigation

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Challenges: Hume's Law

In ‘A Treatise of Human Nature’, David Hume stated that what we observe in the natural world gives us a picture of what the world is like, but we cannot infer these what the world ought to  be like 


  • Murder is the ending of a life 

  • Its is disapproved of by society 

  • It is traumatic for both victim and family 


  • Therefore, we ought not to murder 

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Challenges: Hume's Law ought/is

  • Hume’s Law states that an ‘ought’ cannot be derived from an ‘is’. 

  • This ought statement is prescriptive and comes from our feelings about the facts in front of us

  • It is not a moral fact

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Moore's Naturalistic Fallacy

  • In ‘Principia Ethica’, he claimed that it is an error to define an ethical property in the same way as a natural one

  • Good, like the colour yellow, is sui generis, simple and cannot be broken down into constituent parts for definition 

  • We may define a horse according to its four legs, mane and hooves, but we cannot do this by defining goodness as happiness, virtue or what is natural

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Influenced by Hume

  • He claimed Ethical Naturalists conflate natural and moral properties 

  • For example: a baby is born, I feel happy, so i state that we ought to have babies. Moore says that using a non-moral premise to establish a moral conclusion is an error or fallacy

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Challenge: The open question argument

  • In an open question, the answer cannot be deduced from the premise 

  • Attempts to conflate morality with a natural property will always produce an open question, but a definition should produce a closed question

  • If good equals natural, then we can always substitute natural for good

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Good equals natural

  • Abortion is not natural                                                           Evidently this does not work.

  • Taking medicine is not natural                                               We must ask the open question,

  • Eating is natural                                                                    ‘But is what is natural what is good?’ 

  • Sickness is natural

  • What is good is natural

  • Abortion is not good 

  • Taking medicine is not good

  • Eating is good

  • Sickness is good

  • What is natural is natural

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Objective moral laws

Objective moral laws exist independently of human beings

  • Ethical Non-Naturalism

  • All Intuitions claim that there are basic, self-evident, moral facts that cannot be defined with reference to the natural world, but which nonetheless can be known 

  • These facts are a priori and not subject to opinion or relative to culture

  • They exist objectively and apply universally

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Moral Truths

Moral truths can be discovered by using our minds in an intuitive way. Intuition is:

  • An immediate intellectual awareness 

  • Not demonstrable with with empirical evidence 

  • Not based on anything rational

  • Recognition of the self-evident 

  • Different from a belief 

  • Different from a hunch

  • Adequate justification for action 

  • Understandable 

  • Innate 

A moral intuition will present itself to the mind as true and is unanalysable

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Intuitive ability

Intuitive ability is innate and the same for all moral agents 

  • All humans have the in-built ability to know intuitively the difference between right and wrong

  • Moore claimed that good, like the colour yellow, is indefinable but meaningful

  • It is objective, universal and recognisable through intuition

  • We all recognise these intuitions without need for training or analysis

  • Moral disagreement is not about the nature of good, it is about the method by which we can bring goodness about

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Intuition needs a mature mind

Intuition needs a mature mind so not infallible 

  • Moral intuitions, like numbers, are true obviously and a priori

  • The young child may not immediately recognise this, but with maturity it becomes clear and is self-evident

  • The moral agent requires familiarity with the concept and experience of thinking in this way

  • so, moral intuitions can be wrong if we are not mature thinkers but, Ross claimed, they do give us a prima facie reason to believe them unless there is evidence to the contrary

  • H.A. Pritchard claimed some of us have a more developed intuition than others

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Prima Facie

  • based on first impression, an intial reason 
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Allows for objective moral values

  • Intuition can discover basic, foundational truths about morality, prior to any reasoning process 

  • Intuition knows the fact about what is good, then reason works out how to achieve it

  • Even if an immature mind has misinterpreted its intuition, the standard of goodness still exists independently of the person 

  • What is good is objective and universal in its goodness 

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H.A. Pritchard 'ought to do'

  • He agreed with Hume that you cannot derive an ought from an is 

  • He claimed that apprehension of good is immediate and not based on anything else

  • It is clearly apparent and does not need any supporting evidence from reason or the senses

  • Even if we could find evidence to prove what good is, there is still no reason that I ought to do it 

  • We are trying to link what is the case with what we ought to do

  • This link is invlaid and trying to prove that it exists will result in frustration

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Recognise what we 'ought to do'

Recognise what we ‘ought to do’ by intuition

  •  Our feelings of obligation (ought) are immediate intrusion

  • They are basic (cannot be reduced to another thing)

  • We cannot produce evidence or reasoning for why we should obey them 

  • Gathering evidence to support intuition results in deeper uncertainty 

  • The best evidence is if we feel the same obligation in the future

  • ‘Ought’ is deontological not consequentialist

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Two ways of thinking

Two ways of thinking (general and moral)

        General                                                          Moral

  • Reasoning                                                  Intuition 

  • Collects facts                                              Decides a course to follow

  • Uses empirical evidence                            Self-evident 

  • Does not provide a moral obligation           Recognition of duty

  • Checks our intuition but doesn’t prove it     Not based on reasoning 

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Challenges: No proof

J.L Mackie says that there are two ways that we fail to prove the existence of objective intuitive moral knowledge 

‘I just know X is good’

  • My sense of obligation us utterly unlike the way we gain knowledge in any other area 

  • Objective values are objects or qualities completely unlike anything else that can be found in the univers

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Intuitive 'truths' can differ widely

  • If there were an objective truth and we all had the ability to access ti, we might expect that we would come to the same conclusions 

  • However, none of the Intuitionists can agree on what is our moral obligation

  • Some, like Moore, take a consequentialist approach 

  • Others, like Pritchard and Ross, are more deontological

  • Of these, they cannot agree on any list of duties 

  • It is unclear how we should accurately decide between them

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No obvious way to resolve conflicting intuitions

  • How do we decide between conflicting intuitions?

  • Intuitionism gives no real guidance on this matter 

  • We are told to trust reasoning in such matters, so what do we rely upon?

  • Our intuition can even be distorted by unrelated influences, such as the order in which we encounter aspects of a dilemma or the details that are divulged about them

  • This suggest that such institutions are not self-evident at all

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Objective moral laws do not exist

The Logical Positivists argued:

  • There are only two types of meaningful statement:

  • Analytic statements: tautologies, mathematical and self-evident statements, because they contain their own definition

  • Synthetic statements: any statements that can be checked with empirical evidence 

  • Moral statements do not express propositions about the empirical world, nor are their properties self-defining; therefore, they are factually meaningless 

  • All moral statements are relative and subjective

  • They contain no cognitive properties

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  • Originates in the work of the Vienna Circle
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A non-cognitivist theory

  • Non-cognitivism is a form of irrealism or anti-realism

  • It says that an ethical statement neither makes any truth claims about the world, nor says anything that can be demonstrated as true or false in any real sense  

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moral anti-realism

  • there are no objective moral values 
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Moral terms

Moral terms express personal emotional attitudes and not propositions

Emotivism claims that an ethical statement only professes a feeling on the part of the speaker and nothing more 

  • ‘Stealing is wrong’ only expresses my feelings about stealing

  • It does not make any truth claim about stealing 

  • The claim cannot be evidenced 

  • If i felt differently about stealing, then my claim about it would be different 

  • A factual claim would remain the same whether I liked it or not

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Ethical terms

Ethical terms are just expressions of personal approval or disapproval

  • A moral claim like ‘stealing is wrong’ is only an emotional expression and not even a statement of belief

  • Giving reasons to support my statement is just giving examples of my feelings, not logical support

  • I am just announcing how i feel

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Explains why people disagree about morality

C.L. Stevenson explains moral disagreements by differentiating between beliefs and attitudes

  • Attitudes and beliefs affect each other, and both are involved in moral debate, but ultimately, disagreements about morality are disagreements in attitude

  • However, you cannot prove attitudes, so a moral argument is a challenge to shout the loudest feeling 

  • Moral statements attempt to persuade someone to change their attitude 

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Disagreements in belief (non-moral)

  • Belief propositions concern facts that are believed to be true

  • Conflicting belief statements cannot simultaneously be true

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Disagreements in attitude (moral)

  • Attitudes concern desires or feelings. They are psychological states 

  • Conflicting attitudes attitudes concern what individuals favour or prefer 

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Ethical Statements

Ethical statements are neither verifiable nor analytic 

  • A statement such as ‘stealing is wrong’ contains no more information than I said ‘stealing!’ I can consider the facts of stealing, but it is not possible to analyse the ethical aspect of the statement 

  • The idea of rightness or wrongness is a pseudo-concept

  • It is no different than if I said ‘stealing’ with a strange look of horror on my face

  • The look on my face or the size and shape of the exclamation mark attached to the word offer us no analysable content

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Made to express joy or pain

Ayer identified four types of ethical statements:

  • Propositions that define ethical terms - meta ethics; the only ethical philosophy according to Ayer

  • Propositions that describe moral experience - Descriptive ethics; belongs with psychology or sociology

  • Exhortations of virtue - Normative ethics; does not belong to any category of philosophy or science (emotional statements)

  • Ethical judgement - Applied ethics; does not belong to any category of philosophy or science (emotional statements)

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Ethical judgements are symbols

  • The word ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ is a symbol within a sentence that represents the feeling or sensation I get when I think about a particular issue

  • Such statements have no objective validity

  • They express joy or pain and so relate to internal sensations rather than to anything objective in the external/empirical world

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Emotivism is not subjective

Ayer claimed that Emotivism was different from subjectivism 


  • Ethical statements are expressions of emotion

  • They are propositions about a person’s emotional state

  • Such statements can be verifiable 


  • Ethical statements are expressions of emotion

  • They are emotional utterances 

  • Such statements contain no facts about the self

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Challenges: no basic moral principles

No basic moral principles can be established 

  • Emotivism is too reductionist and gives no basis by which we can establish any moral principles

  • Even the most self-serving normative ethical position that will be covered in this guide has a basis for an ethical principle or code of some kind 

  • An egoist would promote the saving of life in as far as it benefits themselves

  • The relativist would promote saving life provided it produced a result that could be called ‘good’,like happiness or love

  • However, Emotivism says that debating this is meaningless

  • Emotivism is useless in any practical sense

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Challenges: Ethical debate becomes pointless

Ethical debate becomes a pointless activity

  • Ethical debate is reduced to nothing more than a shouting match, with the winner being the one who can shout the loudest or contort the most expressive face

  • Surely ethical discussion is more than this? Moral debate is usually about what constitutes a good action and how best to achieve it 

  • Under Emotivism, all we are doing is shouting our feelings into an abyss

  • We cannot prove or disprove anything that is said, and the reaction relates to nothing empirical

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Challenges: No universal agreement

There is no universal agreement that some actions are wrong 

  • If Emotivism is correct, all normative theories are mistaken and there can be no human rights or acts that are demonstrably wrong 

  • This is so reductionist that it is useless for ordinary life

  • Emotivism has no practical use at all

  • R*pe and murder are reduced to something that I have unpleasant feelings about but cannot be said to be objectively wrong and we cannot have a meaningful discussion about it

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