Logic and the autonomy of ethics

Australasian Journal of Philosophy 67 (2):127 – 151 (1989)
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My first paper on the Is/Ought issue. The young Arthur Prior endorsed the Autonomy of Ethics, in the form of Hume’s No-Ought-From-Is (NOFI) but the later Prior developed a seemingly devastating counter-argument. I defend Prior's earlier logical thesis (albeit in a modified form) against his later self. However it is important to distinguish between three versions of the Autonomy of Ethics: Ontological, Semantic and Ontological. Ontological Autonomy is the thesis that moral judgments, to be true, must answer to a realm of sui generis non-natural PROPERTIES. Semantic autonomy insists on a realm of sui generis non-natural PREDICATES which do not mean the same as any natural counterparts. Logical Autonomy maintains that moral conclusions cannot be derived from non-moral premises.-moral premises with the aid of logic alone. Logical Autonomy does not entail Semantic Autonomy and Semantic Autonomy does not entail Ontological Autonomy. But, given some plausible assumptions Ontological Autonomy entails Semantic Autonomy and given the conservativeness of logic – the idea that in a valid argument you don’t get out what you haven’t put in – Semantic Autonomy entails Logical Autonomy. So if Logical Autonomy is false – as Prior appears to prove – then Semantic and Ontological Autonomy would appear to be false too! I develop a version of Logical Autonomy (or NOFI) and vindicate it against Prior’s counterexamples, which are also counterexamples to the conservativeness of logic as traditionally conceived. The key concept here is an idea derived in part from Quine - that of INFERENCE-RELATIVE VACUITY. I prove that you cannot derive conclusions in which the moral terms appear non-vacuously from premises from which they are absent. But this is because you cannot derive conclusions in which ANY (non-logical) terms appear non-vacuously from premises from which they are absent Thus NOFI or Logical Autonomy comes out as an instance of the conservativeness of logic. This means that the reverse entailment that I have suggested turns out to be a mistake. The falsehood of Logical Autonomy would not entail either the falsehood Semantic Autonomy or the falsehood of Ontological Autonomy, since Semantic Autonomy only entails Logical Autonomy with the aid of the conservativeness of logic of which Logical Autonomy is simply an instance. Thus NOFI or Logical Autonomy is vindicated, but it turns out to be a less world-shattering thesis than some have supposed. It provides no support for either non-cognitivism or non-naturalism.

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Charles R. Pigden
University of Otago

Citations of this work

Emptying a Paradox of Ground.Jack Woods - 2018 - Journal of Philosophical Logic 47 (4):631-648.
Truthmaking and the is—ought gap.Kit Fine - 2018 - Synthese 198 (2):887-914.
Mind the Is-Ought Gap.Daniel J. Singer - 2015 - Journal of Philosophy 112 (4):193-210.
How to Prove Hume’s Law.Gillian Russell - 2021 - Journal of Philosophical Logic 51 (3):603-632.

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References found in this work

A treatise of human nature.David Hume & D. G. C. Macnabb (eds.) - 2003 - Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications.
Principia ethica.George Edward Moore - 1903 - Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications. Edited by Thomas Baldwin.
Reason, truth, and history.Hilary Putnam - 1981 - New York: Cambridge University Press.
Reason, Truth and History.Hilary Putnam - 1981 - New York: Cambridge University Press.
Science Without Numbers: A Defence of Nominalism.Hartry H. Field - 1980 - Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press.

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