Talbott, 5 credits


This course will focus on contemporary discussions of important issues in philosophical ethics.  In the first half of the course, the main issue to be discussed will be:  What are we doing when we make a moral judgment?  This will lead to a discussion of the question:  What are we doing when we make judgments about what it is rational to do?  This will lead to a consideration of various types of moral and normative realism and anti-realism.  In the second half of the course, we will discuss various substantive ethical theories, including utilitarian ethics, social contract ethics, virtue ethics, and feminist ethics.  There will be a Midterm Exam and a Final Exam.  Each exam will include an in-class portion and a take-home portion.  The take-home portion will be a 5-page essay.  Prerequisites:  At least one other course in philosophy is recommended.  Meets I&S Requirement.


Texts: Louis P. Pojman, Ethical Theory (6th ed.) and a photocopied reader.









Some common normative terms are:  ought; duty; obligation; permissible; and forbidden.  When applied to actions, appropriate and inappropriate are normative terms.  [Note that not all NORMATIVE terms are MORAL terms.  For example, ought can be used in a NON-MORAL, PRUDENTIAL sense, as in:  One ought to eat nutritious foods.]















EVALUATIVE TERMS are terms that express approval or disapproval. 


Some common evaluative terms are:  good; bad; excellent; and awful.  EVALUATIVE TERMS can express moral approval or disapproval, but can also express other types of non-moral approval or disapproval (e.g., The statement that apples taste good is a non-moral evaluative statement).





















NORMATIVE/EVALUATIVE STATEMENTS are statements that include at least one normative/evaluative term. For example, moral statements about what one ought or ought not to do (e.g., the statement that one ought not to steal or the statement that one ought to tell the truth) are NORMATIVE, because they contain the NORMATIVE term ought.  [Note that not all normative statements are moral.  See above, for an example of a normative prudential statement.]


[Note that Normative/Evaluative statements can contain SOME Purely Descriptive terms, but Purely Descriptive statements cannot contain ANY Normative/Evaluative terms.]











Metaphysics Deals With The Nature Of Reality--How Things Really Are.


Epistemology Addresses How We Can Have Knowledge Or Justified Beliefs. 


Questions of Moral Metaphysics:  Are there objective moral values?  Are there universal moral truths?


Questions of Moral Epistemology:  If there are objective moral values or universal moral truths, can we ever have moral knowledge or justified moral beliefs?  If so, how?
















Are there purely descriptive necessary and sufficient or even only purely descriptive sufficient conditions for moral wrongness (or rightness)?


Question:  Wrong ó [PD] ?


       [PD] à Wrong?               Wrong à [PD]




Hume and Moore's agreed that the answer is:  No.

       Hume:  You can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.

       Moore:  The Naturalistic Fallacy


BUT for different reasons, because Hume was a moral anti-realist; but Moore was a moral realist.











Cognitivism and Non-Cognitivism

Realism and Anti-Realism


Cognitivism with respect to a certain kind of discourse is the view that the discourse is propositional (and thus that statements in the discourse are true or false).


Non-Cognitivism with respect to a certain kind of discourse is the view that the discourse is not propositional (and thus that statements in the discourse are neither true nor false).  Hume is generally regarded as a non-cognitivist.


A realist with respect to a certain kind of discourse is a cognitivist who believes that some statements in the discourse are true.


An anti-realist with respect to a certain kind of discourse is someone who believes that no statement in the discourse is true—that is, either the statements in the discourse are non-propositional, or they are all false.






Some philosophers disagree with Hume and Moore.  


Recall the Question:  Wrong ó [PD] ?


       [PD] à Wrong?               Wrong à [PD]



Utilitarians' Answer:  Yes


Consider Act Utilitarianism: 


        -(Maximizes Overall Utility) ó Wrong


       Maximizes Overall Utility ó Right


       The failure of utilitarianism has reinforced the view that there is no logical analysis of (necessary and sufficient conditions for) MORAL—or, more generally, NORMATIVE—TERMS in purely descriptive terms, and that there are not even purely descriptive sufficient conditions for  MORAL—or more generally,  NORMATIVE terms.











       Reasoning from Moral Norms or Principles and other Acceptable Premises to a Moral Judgment about a Particular Case (a Particular Moral Judgment). 

       For religious traditions with an infallible moral authority, all moral reasoning is Top-Down.  Enlightenment philosophers assumed that all reasoning was Top-Down, from infallible premises.  I refer to this model of reasoning as the Proof Paradigm. 




       Begin with judgments about particular cases.  Find the moral norms or principles that best EXPLAIN our particular moral judgments about actual and hypothetical cases.  We don't prove anything, but rather try to figure out what it makes the most sense to believe.





Top-Down Act Utilitarianism


PREMISES:  MP1.  Morally Right ó Maximizes Overall Utility  (This is a Moral Principle)


       P2.  My lying in this situation would maximize overall utility.


CONCLUSION:  PMJ1.  In this situation, it is right for me to lie.  (This is a Particular Moral Judgment). 



       Top-Down moral reasoning starts with a generalization (a principle or a norm) and ends with a particular moral judgment (a moral judgment about a particular case, actual or hypothetical). 












Bottom-Up Act Utilitarianism



       Maximizes Overall Utility [MOU] ó Right [R]


What is the status of this principle?  For a bottom-up act utilitarian, it would be an explanatory principle.  The bottom-up act utilitarian would ask us to think of acts that we consider right and acts that we consider wrong.  Then s/he would point argue that act utilitarianism explains the difference between the two kinds of act, because the right acts are acts that maximize overall utility and the wrong ones are acts that do not.

















       Equilibrium Reasoning is both Top-Down and Bottom-Up.  In Equilibrium Reasoning, our main reason for accepting a moral principle is usually that it seems to provide a good explanation of particular cases.  When we accept a moral principle on this basis, we can then reason Top-Down from that moral principle to a particular moral judgment, but the moral principle is not regarded as infallible.  If we discover a particular moral judgment that the principle conflicts with, we must either give up the particular moral judgment or give up the principle.  The decision about which to give up is based on what makes the most sense.


       In this course we don't prove anything.  We use equilibrium reasoning to try to find principles that explain our judgments about particular actual and hypothetical cases.  When someone proposes such a principle, we consider its deductive implications and try to find counterexamples to it.  If we decide that there is a counterexample to a proposed principle, we don't give up trying to find an adequate principle.  We use counterexamples as clues to help us formulate better explanatory principles.



G.E. Moore and the Supervenience of  Normative/Evaluative Truth on

Purely Descriptive, Naturalistic (PDN) Truth



Two Forms of Ethical Naturalism:


(1) MEANING NATURALISM:  Normative/evaluative terms can be defined using only purely descriptive, naturalistic (PDN) terms.  This is the form of ethical naturalism that Moore is usually thought to have argued against.



There can be PDN necessary and sufficient conditions for a normative/evaluative property); or at least, that a PDN statement can imply a normative/evaluative statement .  (There is a PDN sufficient condition for a normative/evaluative property.)  This is the form of ethical naturalism that Moore intended to be arguing against.  He called it the “Naturalistic Fallacy”.


Note that Meaning Naturalism implies Metaphysical Naturalism, but Metaphysical Naturalism does not imply Meaning Naturalism.



Note also that there is no agreement that what is called the ‘Naturalistic Fallacy” is really a fallacy!  That will be one of the questions that we will critically evaluate in this course.

According to Moore, what kind of definition of “good” does not exist?


A definition that gives "the nature of that object or idea” (508).




















Moore's "Open Question" Argument


Consider a proposed PDN definition of "good"—for example:


(PDN Def.) Good for X = what X desires to desire (512).


Ask the following question:  Is what X desires to desire what X desires to desire?  This is a closed question.


Now ask the following question:  Is what X desires to desire good for X? 

If (PDN Def.) were a definition of "good for X", this would also be a closed question.  But it is not.  It is an open question, because we can wonder whether it is true.


Moore claims that any substitution of a PDN predicate for "good" will produce an open question, thus there can be no PDN definition of "good".











       He tries to draw a metaphysical conclusion from an epistemological argument.


       What is the epistemological conclusion of his argument?


       What is the metaphysical conclusion that he draws from the argument?


       This argument seems to establish only the trivial point that no purely descriptive terms could ever fully capture the meaning of a normative or evaluative term.  But the metaphysical issue is whether there could be PDN necessary and sufficient conditions for normative or evaluative terms.










A Different Argument for the

Metaphysical Conclusion




The analogy with "yellow".


“This lemon is yellow” is not a definition of “yellow”. It is a predication of yellow to something.  There is no PDN definition of “yellow”.


Similarly, Moore thinks that some things are good, but there is no PDN definition of “good”.


















What is the metaphysical idea that Moore uses to explain the analogy?  Supervenience.


Moore holds that because normative/evaluative properties or truths are NONNATURAL, there are no PDN necessary and sufficient conditions for normative/evaluative properties or truths.  But there is a relation between the two.  The NONNATURAL normative/evaluative properties or truths SUPERVENE on PDN properties and truths.  Fixing all the PDN truths also fixes the normative/evaluative truths, but there are no logically necessary and sufficient conditions for normative/evaluative terms in PDN terms.


Note the analogy with consciousness (e.g., the perception of yellow), which seems to supervene on naturalistic truths about non-conscious processes and events.


What is the disanalogy with "yellow"?

Normative/evaluative judgments are not simple perceptual judgments.  The judgments are affected by purely descriptive, naturalistic background information. 

       Moore recognizes that there is a disanalogy, but holds that supervenience applies in both cases.  Because of supervenience Moore believes that there are no exceptionless moral principles that provide a PDN sufficient condition for moral rightness/wrongness. 


       For any example of a morally wrong possible act with property PDN1, there is another possible act with property PDN1 that is not wrong. 


       What conclusion does Moore draw from his argument?
















Moral Realism and Anti-Realism


Moral Realism (MR):  There are normative truths about what one morally ought or ought not to do.   (There is some disagreement among moral realists on whether or not these truths depend on one's situation).  These truths apply to all rational beings (at least, when they are in relevantly similar situations). 


Moral Anti-Realism (MAR):  There are no normative truths about what one morally ought or ought not to do.  (The advocate of MAR typically provides an explanation of why it seems to us that there are such truths). 


       Moore draws a MR conclusion from his argument:  That good is a non-natural property.  Mackie applies the argument to the terms morally right and morally wrong and endorses the conclusion of the argument, but, because he denies that there are any non-natural properties, he draws the MAR conclusion from Moore’s argument.









Mackie calls his view “moral skepticism”, but skepticism is an epistemological thesis (that we have no way of knowing or justifiably believing moral truths, if there are any).  He actually defends both an epistemological thesis (moral skepticism) and a metaphysical thesis (moral anti-realism).


Mackie's moral skepticism (and moral anti-realism) are second order views, not a first order views.  What is the difference?  (Is Mackie correct that the two levels are "completely independent"(549)?)


The challenge has two parts:


I.  Our ordinary moral judgments make a claim to objective values:  "objective, intrinsic prescriptivity"(553)









       A.  Both ethical non-cognitivism and ethical naturalism are inadequate.  Why?


       B.  According to Mackie, Moore was right about the commitments of ethical language.  Why?


       (Mackie agrees that if there were objective moral properties, they would have to be non-natural.  Mackie is a naturalist:  He denies that there are any non-natural properties.)

















II.  There are no objective values ("Error Theory")—moral anti-realism; or at least, we have no way of knowing anything about them (moral skepticism).


       Two arguments:


       A. The Argument from Relativity.  Not the important one.


       B.  The Argument from Queerness.  This is the argument that has been most influential. 


















The argument from queerness has two parts: 


(A) Metaphysical.  Objective values would be "entities or qualities of a very strange sort, utterly different from anything else in the universe"(555).

       Plato's Form of the Good:  the end has "to-be-pursuedness somehow built into it"(555-556).

       Objective principles of wrongness:  a wrong act "would have not-to-be-doneness somehow built into it"(556).

       We will use Mackie's terms to state the problem.  Objective values would require objective to-be-pursuedness (TBP).  Objective right and wrong would require objective to-be-doneness (TBD) and objective not-to-be-doneness (-TBD).


(B) Epistemological.  For us to be aware of objective TBP, TBD, and -TBD, "it would have to be by some special faculty of moral perception or intuition, utterly different from our ordinary ways of knowing everything else"(555).












(1) Richard Price's list:  "essence, number, identity, diversity, solidity, inertia, substance, the necessary existence and infinite extension of time and space, necessity and possibility in general, power, and causation"(555).


(2) Anything else to add?  Non-moral normativity:

       Rationality is a normative concept.  Mackie’s queerness argument applies to all normative concepts, including the concept of theoretical rationality (rationality of belief) and non-moral practical rationality (practical rationality in non-moral contexts).

       Compare Mackie's discussion of hypothetical imperatives on p. 557.  Do they have objective normativity?












A.  Non-Moral Properties


Objective Non-Moral To-Be-Pursuedness [or Not-To-Be-Pursuedness]:  This would be a property of goals that it would be irrational, though not necessarily immoral, not to pursue [or to pursue] or a non-moral constraint on the goals to be pursued.  For example the Strong or Weak Norm of Transitivity is a potential norm of Non-Moral To-Be-Pursuedness, because it is a rational constraint on preferences (goals).


Objective Non-Moral To-Be-Doneness [or Not-To-Be-Doneness]:  This would be a property of actions that it would be irrational, though not necessarily immoral, to fail to perform [or to perform], in the appropriate circumstances.  For example, the Instrumentalist Norm is a potential norm of non-moral to-be-doneness.


B.  Moral Properties


Objective Moral To-Be-Pursuedness [or Not-To-Be-Pursuedness]:  This would be property of goals that everyone morally should [or should not] pursue.  For example, act utilitarians believe that the goal of maximizing overall utility is a moral goal that everyone should pursue.


Objective Moral To-Be-Doneness [or Not-To-Be-Doneness]:  This would be a property of actions that everyone morally should perform [or should not perform].  For example, Kant thought that his categorical imperative was a moral norm that all rational agents should obey, regardless of whether they had any inclination to do so. 


C.  Epistemological Properties


Objective To-Be-Believedness [Not-To-Be-Believedness]:  This would be a property beliefs that everyone should believe [or should not believe] in the appropriate circumstances.  For example, the Law of Non-Contradiction is a potential norm of not-to-be-believedness.