Normative Ethical Theory in the 20th Century


Normative Ethical theory underwent a period of refinement in some areas and proliferation in others during the 20th century. Theories prominent in the 19th century, such as Utilitarianism, underwent refinement in light of criticisms; other approaches, such as normative intuitionism and virtue ethics, were developed in new directions, ones that reflected the sophistication of analytical techniques developed by philosophers in the 20th century, particularly in ordinary language philosophy. The middle of the 20th century was marked by an interest in conceptual analysis and what could be revealed about our concepts in the analysis of ‘ordinary’ language appeals to those concepts. For example, Gilbert Ryle argued that the hope of clearing up our concepts via formalizing them was futile, and instead the task of philosophy was to clear up confusions present in the ordinary use of concepts, concepts employed by ordinary people as well as specialists in a given area. Normative ethicists in the very early part of the 20th century had not yet adopted a ‘scientizing’ attitude to philosophy. They believed, for example, that one could rely on intuition in formulating ethical theories.1 Theorists in the early part of the century were also optimistic about the prospects of systematizing normative ethics in a way that would be faithful to our common sense normative judgments. This began, largely, with a critical look at Utilitarianism



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Julia Driver
University of Texas at Austin

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