Russell's moral philosophy

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2007)
Abstract
A 27000 word survey of Russell’s ethics for the SEP. I argue that Russell was a meta-ethicist of some significance. In the course of his long philosophical career, he canvassed most of the meta-ethical options that have dominated debate in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries — naturalism, non-naturalism, emotivism and the error-theory (anticipating Stevenson and Ayer on the one hand and Mackie on the other), and even, to some extent, subjectivism and relativism. And though none of his theories quite worked out, there is much to be learned from his mistakes. Nor is this all. His ARGUMENTS as well as his THEORIES are often interesting and instructive. The ethical corollary to the argument of ‘Seems Madam? Nay, It Is,’ puts the kybosh on any attempt to resolve Sidgwick's Dualism of Practical Reason by arguing that although we are distinct beings with different interests in the world of Appearance, we are, in Reality, all one (§3). Russell's arguments against objectivism are often quite powerful, and one anticipates Gilbert Harman's influential argument that objective values can be safely dismissed since they lack explanatory power (§9.3-9.4). Russell's damning critique of Moore's analytic consequentialism led Moore to abandon the view and perhaps to give up his ‘unduly anti-reforming’ moral conservatism. Moreover Russell's INDIRECT influence on meta-ethics may have been profound since the Open Question Argument, was probably invented to deal with Russell's ideas. Finally, in the realm of normative ethics, Russell developed a sensible and humane version of consequentialism, which (despite its shaky meta-ethical foundations) is resistant, if not immune, to many of the standard criticisms, especially if combined — as Russell thought it should be combined — with a healthy dose of political skepticism. It provides a powerful tool for social and political criticism, a tool which Russell vigorously employed on a vast range of topics in his writings on practical ethics.
Keywords Bertrand Russell  G.E Moore  Henry Sidgwick  The Naturalistic Fallacy  Meta-Ethics  Absolute Idealism  Conseqentialism  Bolshevism  Open Question Argument
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    Charles R. Pigden (2012). Identifying Goodness. Australasian Journal of Philosophy 90 (1):93 - 109.
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