Normative Ethics


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What kind of academic inquiry can best help humanity make progress towards as good a world as possible?  Why are philosophers apparently so uninterested in this question?  Is it because most believe the kind of academic inquiry we have today, devoted primarily to the pursuit of knoweldge and technological know-how, is the best that we can have, judged from the perspective of helping humanity make progress towards a better world?  Why are philosophers apparently so uninterested in arguments which seem to show decisively that inquiry restricted to the pursuit of knowledge is both profoundly irrational, and a menace?  The successful pursuit of knowledge and technological know-how, dissociated from a more fundamental concern to help humanity resolve conflicts and problems of living in increasingly cooperatively rational ways, is almost bound to lead to trouble.  Scientific knowledge and technological know-how enormously increase our power to act - for some of us at ... (read more)
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If you come across this paper while researching philosophy of love, you should watch this:
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It has recently occurred to me that the advocate of the Kantian Wille may, in significant measure, be victim of a kind of phenomenological illusion.  

We imagine the Kantian going serially down her list of desires -- "passive" matters of fact about what her experiences and behavior reveal to be her preferences -- and saying of each, "I could forebear that, if necessary.  So none of them, not one, is really me.  Me, my autonomous Wille, is distinct from every one of those desires."  A similar mistake led Newton to the postulation of Absolute Space; viz., relative effects are hypostatized into an independent existence.  What enables one to deny identity with any particular desire X is one's background awareness of all the other desires that are not X, whose cumulative preponderance overwhelms any particular desire.

Of course, the "background" cumulative awareness of all of one's desires is indeed separate from any particular desire, so in that sense there is indeed a Wille.  But it is not ... (read more)
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Essentially, we'll never truly be able to distinguish between "right" and "wrong" actions. At any given time in history, however, philosophers, theologians, and politicians will claim to have discovered the best way to evaluate human actions and establish the most righteous code of conduct. But it's never that easy. Life is far too messy and complicated for there to be anything like a universal morality or an absolutist ethics. The Golden Rule is great (the idea that you should treat others as you would like them to treat you),
For example, should the few be spared to save the many? Who has more moral worth: a human baby or a full-grown great ape? 

At best, we can only say that morality is normative, while acknowledging that our sense of right and wrong will change over time.

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Hi Jack,

Nice paper!. However, if I may, I wasn't convinced by your response to objection five. The objection, I take it, is that the intuitions you are marshaling about incoherence derive from a non-moral standpoint, that is, they are intuitions that arise when one is doing metaethics and not when one is actually moralizing.  And it seems undeniable that Moore paradoxical sentences are straightforwardly bizarre when uttered by persons in the context of actual moralizing (just imagine actually having the relevant conversation). At the outset of your paper, you correctly note that expressivism is a theory about actual moralizing, so it seems like this is one objection to which you should be very sensitive.  You respond:

This is not really a rejection of C3, but a rejection of C1, since it admits that it is not always the case that affective or conative attitudes are expressed by moral assertions. If non-cognitive mental states are only sometimes expressed by moral assertions, then the clai ... (read more)

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Hi Matt,

This is a very interesting paper.  I am in agreement with the basic premise, namely, that we should be suspicious of moral intuitions which are highly contingent or "flippable".  However, I have one or two questions about the argument.

In one section, you're dealing with the problem of "typing" mechanisms.  The point, as I understand it, is to show that your argument defeats demandingness intuitions but does not defeat other moral intuitions (such as those concerning the wrongness of slavery).  You say:

Given these considerations, how generally should we type the testimonial process behind my moral belief that slavery is wrong? The reliability of (say) my mother’s anti-racist moral testimony in the actual world should not necessarily be impugned by the unreliability of her moral testimony were she a racist bigot, for her epistemic situation (i.e., her foundational moral beliefs) in the latter case would be radically mistaken. The two types of testimonial processes, then, are plausibl ... (read more)

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Hi Professor Demetriou,

I've just read the draft of your paper, and I really enjoyed it, especially the bits where you complicate the somewhat simplistic just-so cultural-evolutionary story provided by Ross and Nisbett.  One rarely sees such deep engagement with actual anthropological data in moral-philosophical papers about disagreement, and I think your reflections here are a valuable contribution to this literature.

However, I have a question about the "pluralism" that is on offer, which is "a view urging the moral correctness of  multiple and mutually irreducible comprehensive ethical  outlooks , each suited to  its own dimension  of social life ."  A familiar worry emerges here, which is that you are covertly drawing on a kind of monism which serves to make each of the competing moral systems appear attractive.  The trouble begins with the word "suited": what does it mean to say that a moral outlook is "suited" t ... (read more)
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This was a solid paper guys I really must commend you for the excellent work. With that said, I do agree with you about Raz's arguments. They seemed to possess little to no substance whatsoever and his argument of self-interest towards the end seemed to be more of a forfeiture of his premise than anything else. I will at least credit him for attempting to untangle the knots in this complex field we call moral philosophy but I had some major objections while reading. Please do correct me if I speak ignorantly or from a misinformed position.

1. Raz says to be moral is to see value in others and one's self. This value is derived from the virtue of being a person. Are we to take it that the recognition of this value disregards how we cultivate that value through action which subsequently has consequences? If I see value in someone, but still decide to take away their life because I perceive myself to be more valuable, am I moral or not.

2. A refutation of point 1 would be that to see value ... (read more)
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For those that are interested, I've written up a response at that defends consequentialism from some of the interesting objections that Stratton-Lake raises in this paper.

I am delighted that someone of Kitcher's ability has tackled the meta-ethical implications of understanding morality as an evolutionary adaptation. Further, Christine Clavien has advanced that good cause by providing an inspiringly insightful and clear review of important implications of his work. 

However, the science of the matter actually supports a much stronger hypothesis than Kitcher's "morality evolved to overcome altruism failures".That stronger hypothesis may have different meta-ethical implications.

Relevant criteria for scientific truth regarding morality as an evolutionary adaptation Include explanatory power for descriptive facts and puzzles, no contradiction with known facts, simplicity, and integration with the rest of science. By these criteria, a superior hypothesis can be stated as "morality overcomes a universal cooperation-exploitation dilemma by motivating or advocating altruistic cooperation strategies". That is, morality is composed of assemblies of biolog ... (read more)

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Suppose that I am sentenced to death in three years' time and presently held in solitary confinement. One day the jailor makes me an offer. On the day of the execution, he will see that my sentence is commuted to exile to Siberia. For the rest of my life, I will work twelve hours a day on hard benches in a chilly sweatshop. I have no relatives or dependents, and nobody else's well-being will be significantly affected by whether I live or die.

It seems to me that, given this choice, I might marginally prefer the sweatshop to death, but only marginally. At first it seems there are no strings attached to the offer, but now the jailor demands to torture me for fifteen minutes each day for the next three years (he is a sadist and gets his kicks from it). Since my preference for the sweatshop over death is only marginal, I refuse the deal. The jailor, disappointed by my refusal, decides to sweeten the deal. He offers to ensure that the sweatshop has heating, padded chairs and a radio. I do no ... (read more)

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In the question of this post's title, I am not asking whether one has a duty to act to change others' actions for the moral better; I'm wondering about cases in which others' actions are fixed, and one seems to have some power to make those actions morally better or worse. Here are two examples.

CASE I: Suppose that A and B are traversing the desert. A somehow learns, without B's knowledge, of B's intention to kill A. Each night they take turns standing watch while the other sleeps. A knows that B intends that night to wait until A is asleep, set a time bomb, and then leave. (Staying awake is out of the question for A; narcolepsy, etc.). A is fully confident that B's intentions are unshakable; A now sees his own imminent death as entirely unavoidable. A is choosing the campsite for the night -- whether site 1 or site 2. Unbeknownst to B, A sees that campsite 1 is near a nest of deadly snarks. Ordinarily, this would be no problem -- snarks will not approach while a wakeful hu ... (read more)
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Most moral views assume some kind of equality.  However, usually this assumption is foundational, i.e. no further grounds are provided apart from its evident reasonableness.  E.g., utilitarians accept the Benthamite requirement that every person counts as one and no one as more than one, but typically no justification is given beyond its apparent fairness. 

I believe that that equality can be demonstrated, at least in the specific case of the equality of person's interests.

We begin with a technical restriction.  We can distinguish "other-regarding" interests as interests in someone's interests; e.g., a lover can be interested in a partner's well-being, a sympathetic nurse might be interested in reducing a patient's suffering, a sadist could be interested in causing or increasing somebody's pain, etc.  The equality to be demonstrated only concerns non-other-regarding interests, or what can be called "self-restricted" interests.  This is bec ... (read more)

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In this blog post, I outline a new form of Satisficing Consequentialism that meets Bradley's requirement that it "does not permit the gratuitous prevention of goodness."


To what extent is there (out now or forthcoming) a comprehensive review of the literature on the Trolley Problem (empirical and theoretical)?  Where can it be found?

(The philpapers bibliography, while helpful, doesn't seem terribly complete to my knowledge (so let's work on it!), and of course a bibliography doesn't count as a *review* of the literature.)

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Ethical decision making is not a linear process, since it is influenced by individual and social factors, by different degrees of knowledge and responsibility. The fact that deliberation is complex requires a thorough reflection upon a model that can help us make ethical decisions aiming at the good life, with and for the others, in just institutions.One of the models that has been discussed and tested in different studies is T.M. Jones (1991) – An issue contingent model[i], which is based on the idea that the moral intensity of a particular situation influences the way the individuals perceive that situation and the way they decide to act. There is thus a correlation between the moral intensity of a situation and the perception and ethical intention of the subject.

Other models that have already been published and seem to be very useful are:
Carlson, D.S.; Kacmar, K.M.; Wadsworth, L.L. – “The impact of Moral Intensity Dimensions on Ethical Decision Making: Assessing the relevance of Or ... (read more)

Cross-posted from

The paper we discussed this week is here and my (very short) handout is here.

Schroeder is offering more of a general structure for an expressivist account than a fully-worked out one, and one of the points he’s fairly vague on is what descriptive predicate should typically follow the ‘is for’ attitude. For the purposes of the paper, he adopts a proposal of Gibbard’s, which analyses disapproval (a technical term for the expressivist) in terms of being for blaming for; so the idea is that ‘Jon thinks murder is wrong’ should be rendered as ‘Jon is for blaming for murdering’.

(Note that we can’t just adopt the ‘is for’ proposal without any descriptive predicate: ‘is for the non-occurrence of’ because this collapses two readings we want to keep distinct; the non-occurrence of not-murdering is the same as the occurrence of murdering, while not blaming for not murdering is not the same as blaming for murdering.)

Taken literally, it looks like ... (read more)

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