Theories of Ethics

Theories of Ethics

Theories of Ethics

Theories of Ethics

Excerpt

The articles reprinted here centre round two topics lately much debated: firstly the nature of moral judgement, and secondly the part played by social utility in determining right and wrong. Both these debates go back to the eighteenth century, for at that time philosophers divided for and against the moral sense and intellectualist theories of moral judgement, and at the end of the century Bentham laid down that the principle of utility was the foundation of moral good.

The later articles in the volume (numbers IX-XII) are quite simply about utilitarianism, so their relation to the past is clear. Numbers I-VIII are less obviously related to the subject of eighteenth-century battles; but nevertheless the connexion is close. Like ourselves Hume and his contemporaries were concerned with the possible, or impossible, objectivity of moral judgements. In what, they asked, did the virtuousness of virtuous actions consist? How was it apprehended? Was it rather judged of or felt? Did we know what we ought to do by the intellect or by a moral sense? Was there, indeed, anything there to be known, or did moral discourse rather express our feelings than speak of our discoveries about virtue and vice? Hume himself decided that the search for objective moral properties was vain, and argued that in calling an action virtuous we say nothing but that we feel a pleasing sentiment of approbation in contemplating it, a theory that seemed to explain how moral judgements were linked to action. For we shall naturally be concerned to do, and to promote, what affects us in this pleasing way, whereas if the morality of actions were said to lie in something of which our reason tells us it would have to be shown why this discovery should have a necessary influence on the will.

One might say that the problems that trouble us at the present time are precisely Hume's problems. More directly, however, it has been Professor G. E. Moore who has set the stage for us, and the name of Hume does not even appear in the index of Moore's Principia Ethica. It is as if we have started with Moore and then worked back from him to Hume. Let us first then say something about the immensely . . .

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