Ethics and Language

Ethics and Language

Ethics and Language

Ethics and Language

Excerpt

The problems of ethics are older than Socrates and the Sophists, and have persisted throughout all subsequent philosophy. If time has not left them wholly unchanged, that is because each generation has seen them in a fresh perspective. I have examined them anew, and in keeping with current trends of thought, have sought to gain a perspective from a study of language and meaning. But I have often taken language as a point of departure, extending my analysis in whatever direction it has led. In particular, I have given attention to the methods, both rational and nonrational, that are used in ethical discussions.

Apart from my emphasis on language, my approach is not dissimilar to that of Hume. We must "glean up our experiments in this science from a cautious observation of human life, and take them as they appear in the common course of the world, by men's behavior in company, in affairs, and in their pleasures." Perhaps this is not the only possible approach; but I hope I have been successful in showing that empiricism, so often criticized as distorting ethics, or discrediting it, can in fact give it a place whose importance is beyond question.

There is a marked distinction between the conclusions that are drawn about normative ethics and those that are drawn within it. In characterizing the latter my empiricism bears a qualification, but one which will establish it more firmly, I hope, by moderating its claims. I have sought to show, always in scientifically intelligible terms, that normative ethics is more than a science -- that it encounters its own difficulties, and has its own characteristic functions. Such a view does not require a faith in some higher type of knowledge, beyond that to which the sciences can attain. It requires only the realization that ethical issues involve personal and social decisions about what is to be approved, and that these decisions, though they vitally depend upon knowledge, do not themselves constitute knowledge.

I wish to express grateful indebtedness to my colleagues -- particularly to Professor C. W. Hendel and Professor F. S. C. Northrop, who have read the whole of my manuscript and offered many . . .

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