A Glossary of Standard Meanings of Common Terms in Ethical Theory

R. N. Johnson
Ethical Theory
Phil. 411
(in progress, comments welcome)


 

Cognitivism: Moral judgments express beliefs, and so have a descriptive or "cognitive" content. They are therefore capable of being true or false.

Non-cognitivism: Moral judgments do not express beliefs, and so have no descriptive or "cognitive" content. They are therefore not capable of being true or false. Most non-cognitivists hold that moral judgments express desires, or some other subjective attitude or feeling. But this need not be the case. She may hold that certain attitudes, e.g., respect for persons, are objective in some senseĺ─ţe.g., that every rational being would have them. even if they are not capable of being true or false.

Error theory: (a) Any cognitivist view that claims that moral judgments are false (e.g., Mackie: Because every moral judgment implies something false, viz., that there are moral facts, and there are no moral facts, every moral judgment is false). Call this a ĺ─˛first orderĺ─˘ error theory; or perhaps (b) " Any view which claims that the folk theory of our moral judgments is not true (i.e., it is our ordinary reflective judgments about the nature of our moral judgments and their relationships to the world, though not the moral judgments themselves, which are false). Call this a ĺ─˛second-orderĺ─˘ error theory. Note that a second order error theory is compatible with a first order success theory, and vice-versa.

Success theory: Any cognitivist view that claims that either (a) at least one moral judgment is true (first order) and/or (b) at least one proposition from our folk theory about our moral judgments is true (second order).

Subjectivism: Any theory that claims that moral judgments are either about (cognitivist) or express (non-cognitivist) subjective conditions or states. (e.g. "Murder is wrong" is a judgement about the strong disapproval for murder felt by the person making the judgment, or an expression of that attitude).

Objectivism: (a) Typically, a cognitivist view that claims that moral judgments are not about, or do not depend on, subjective states, but are about and do depend on objective states of the world external to judgers. (e.g., "Murder is wrong" asserts that there is a property, wrongness, which murder has, and which exists even if no judgment about it does. An objectivist believes that such claims are sometimes true.) (b) Some non-cognitivists might also count as ĺ─˛objectivistĺ─˘, in a non-standard sense, if they claimed that moral judgments are not expressions of subjective states (such as tastes or personal preferences), but are expressions of objective states (such as an attitude possessed by all rational beings), of the judger. (c) Some call views which claim that rational convergence on moral judgments is in principle possible (i.e., lack of convergence can be traced to defects in judgment or hidden variation in inputs).

Expressivism: A non-cognitivist view which holds that moral judgments are expressions of the psychological states of the judger (e.g., attitudes, or committments to principles or norms).

Emotivism: A kind of expressivism. Moral judgments express feelings of approval or disapproval towards actions, etc., and encourage the same in others (e.g., the sentence "Murder is wrong", when meaningful, expresses the disapproval of murder, of the person uttering it, and encourages the same in hearers).

Prescriptivism: A non-cognitivist view that claims that moral judgments express universal prescriptions (they tell us to do something in such and such circumstances and are directed toward everyone at every time, e.g., "Murder is wrong" expresses the prescription "No murder, anywhere by anyone at any time").

Ideal Observer Theory: A cognitivist view. Moral judgments are beliefs about what would or would not be approved of by a fully informed, fully rational observer with an ideal psychology.

Constructivism: (i) Normally, a cognitivist theory which holds that the content of moral judgments is about the conformity of actions, etc., to principles constructible according to some specified procedure; or possibly (ii) a non-cognitivist theory which holds that a moral judgment is justified (objective) when and only when it expresses a committment to principles which can be or could be constructed according to some acceptable procedure.

Contractarianism: A constructivist view. The acceptable procedure for constructing moral and/or political principles is the one which produces an agreement or contract, actual or possible, among the individuals who will live under those principles, or between them and a sovereign.

The difference principle (Rawls): Social and economic inequalities are just only if they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged position in society.

Minimax relative concession (Gautier): A distribution scheme for the benefits and burdens of social cooperation is rational only if it represents a bargain in which the greatest concession made by any member in order to reach it is as small as possible.

Moral Realism: A metaphysical position that claims there are ĺ─˛realĺ─˘ moral properties or facts. What this amounts to is contentious, since what saying that a property is a real property amounts to is contentious (quasi-realists, for instance, deny that ordinary moral thought is committed to anything metaphysical in endorsing statements such as ĺ─˛Murder is really, objectively, and in fact wrongĺ─˘). Typically, however, moral realists hold a cognitivist, non-constructivist, objectivist success theory. (Some count cognitivist subjectivism and intersubjectivism as realistic theories).

Moral Irrealism: The denial of moral realism.

Ethical Reductionism: Again, what this amounts to is contentious since what constitutes a reduction is contentious, and ĺ─˛reductionismĺ─˘ has come to be a pejorative term among some. Standardly, a reductionist view is any view which holds that statements about a thing's moral properties are equivalent in meaning and/or inferential possibilities to a set of statements about its other, non-moral properties. Alternatively, sometimes a view is called reductionist because it holds that the referents of statements about moral properties are the same as the referents of statements about natural properties (as in ĺ─˛Water is nothing but H2Oĺ─˘, or ĺ─˛Ghosts are nothing but figments of our imaginationĺ─˘).

"Bridge" Laws: Laws which connect statements in one vocabulary with statements in another vocabulary, usually by expressing the identity of the property attributions that the two statements assert. For example '"x is water" <--> "x is H20"' is a bridge law connecting water vocabulary with chemistry vocabulary.

Supervenience: A brief perusal of the output of the large cottage industry that has sprung up concerning this concept will convince most that no two theorists have the same thing in mind. Nonetheless, there is agreement  on general features: ĺ─˛supervenienceĺ─˘ is a necessary relationship between sets or kinds of properties such that there can be no change in supervening set of properties without some change in the subvening properties. Moreover, sets or kinds of properties can supervene weakly or strongly on other sets or kinds of properties. Another way to put this is: if there is anything with a property from the supervening set, then there cannot be anything else having identical properties from the subvening set but not it. The view that there are such properties was originally associated with prescriptivism (which attributed supervenience to judgments not properties), and has been developed most fully in philosophy of mind and science:

WEAK: "It is necessarily the case that, for each moral property a thing has, there is some natural property the thing has such that everything which has it has the moral property as well."

STRONG: "It is necessarily the case that for each moral property a thing has, there is some natural property the thing has such that, necessarily, everything which has it has the moral property as well."

Ethical Naturalism: (i) Realist view which identifies moral properties with natural properties (though does not necessarily reduce moral statements to naturalistic statements), and says that moral knowledge requires no epistemology beyond what is necessary for the knowledge of natural properties. (ii) Non-realist eliminativist position that in the final analysis there are only natural (usually--physical or material) facts and properties, none of which can be reduced to or identified with "moral" properties. (iii) Reductionist view (attacked by Moore) that moral statements are equivalent in meaning to naturalistic statements.

Ethical Non-naturalism: An objectivistic success theory which holds that there are moral properities, but they are not natural properties (Moore: defined as empirical properties).

Ethical Intuitionism: The view that some moral judgments are justified non-inferentially, or are "intuited". Moral facts and properties are perceived by a "moral" intuition, either a special sense (moral sense theory) or by reason (rational intuitionism). Non-naturalists are often intuitionists, since on their view, moral properties are not inferable from empirically accessible properties.

Naturalistic Fallacy (Moore): The fallacy of identifying moral properties (e.g., good) with some other (but not necessarily natural) properties (e.g., happiness, being the object of God's will). Moore took this to be the same thing as asserting an analytic or meaning connection between moral terms and natural terms.

Projectivism: Non-realist view. Moral judgments project our reactions to certain natural properties of actions and characters onto those actions and characters themselves.

Quietism: (Sotto voce) The view that completely general questions about the relationship between our judgments and the world cannot meaningfully be raised (often, this view is taken because it is presumed that such questions require a transcendental, Archimedian, and so inaccessible, viewpoint).

Internalism: (i) Moral judgments necessarily entail that the person who makes them has a motive to act accordingly. (E.g., Anyone who sincerely judges that "Lying is wrong" necessarily will have a motive to avoid lying.) (ii) Moral facts necessarily entail that the person(s) they concern has a motive to act accordingly.

Externalism: (i) Moral judgments do not necessarily give the person who makes them a motive to act accordingly. (ii) Moral facts do not necessarily entail that the person(s) they concern has a motive to act accordingly.

Consequentialism: A kind of theory of right. Rightness of actions, laws or policies is determined by their consequences.

Optimific: Productive the best consequences of all available options.

Act Consequentialism: An action is right iff it is optimific, wrong otherwise.

Rule Consquentialism: An action is right iff it does not violate the set of optimific rules.

Motive Consequentialism: An action is right iff its motive is optimific.

Indirect Consequentialism: The view that one ought not use consequentialism as a decision procedure. Consequentialism on this view is simply an account of which actions are right; it is not an account of how agents should decide which actions are right.

Ethical Hedonism: A theory of the good. On the basis of the assumption that the good is whatever is desired for its own sake, this view argues that only pleasure and absence of pain is good.

Psychological Hedonism: The only possible motive for any action is either the desire for pleasure or the aversion to pain.

Ethical Egoism: A theory of the good. Only the agent's own happiness is good.

Psychological Egoism: The only possible motive for any action is the agent's desire for her own good.

Pluralism: (i) A theory of the good. This view denies that there is any one good which is desired for its own sake, holding instead that there are some number of irreducible goods. (ii) A theory of the right: What makes actions right or wrong cannot be distilled down to a single principle or property, but only a collection of irreducible principles or properties.

Utilitarianism: (Classical) hedonistic consequentialism, or any consequentialist view that views the good to be maximized is "utility" or, more broadly, human well-being.

Deontological Theory: A normative moral theory that puts analysis of duty or right action prior to or perhaps independent of, the analysis of final ends, or "goodness". More recently, any normative theory that includes at least one "agent-relative" moral constraint or principle, not derived from any more general "agent-neutral" constraints or principles.

Teleological Theory: A normative moral theory that puts the analysis of final ends or "goodness" prior to the analysis of right action or duty. More recently, any normative theory that does not include any "agent-relative" constraints or principles, unless they are derived or justified in terms of more general "agent-neutral" constraints or principles.

Virtue ethical theory: A normative moral theory that makes desirable character traits, rather than actions or their outcomes, central or basic.

Intrinsic goodness: The goodness a thing has independently of its relation to any other thing (Moore: the goodness that supervenes on a thing's non-relational natural properties).

Extrinsic goodness: The goodness a thing has only in virtue of its relationships to other things. (Moore: the goodness that supervenes on a thing's relational natural properties--e.g., instrumental or contributory goodness).

Retributivism (jus talionis): The view that punishment ought to correspond to the degree of immorality or harm. (As opposed to those who hold that punishment justified only as a deterrence to crime.)

Reflective Equilibrium: (Rawls, derived from Goodman): A state that arises when our general normative principles, considered moral judgments, and relevant non-moral theories coincide with and support one another. (Narrow: when normative principles coincide with considered moral judgments; wide: when non-moral theory support our set of coinciding principles and judgments.)

Hume's Law: A principle which states that no judgment of what ought or ought not be done can be "derived from" a set of judgments about what is or is not the case alone. (Sometimes added: "...without an explanation.")

Explanationism: Weak: We are entitled to believe in existence of any properties, facts or entities which are postulated by those theories which best explain our observations. Strong: We are only entitled to believe in explanatory properties, facts, entities.

"Agent-Relative" Constraints: Practical constraints on actions that have a pronominal back reference to the agent within the scope of the "ought". That is, agent-relative constraints state that an agent must bring it about that she As, even if this would not be best from an impersonal standpoint, and even if by not A-ing, she would bring it about that many more people A.

"Agent-Neutral" Constraints: Practical constraints on actions that have no pronominal back reference to the agent within the scope of the "ought". That is, agent-relative constraints state that an agent must bring about the most value in the world, impersonally considered. Hence, if A-ing is of value, then an agent is obligated to bring about as much A-ing in the world, even if this requires that she not A.


Čę Robert N. Johnson, 2001


BACK TO PHIL. 411 HOME PAGE

BACK TO RNJ'S HOME PAGE