Rejecting ethical deflationism

Ethics 116 (4):742-768 (2006)
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Abstract

One of the perennial challenges of ethical theory has been to provide an answer to a number of views that appear to undermine the importance of ethical questions. We may refer to such views collectively as “deflationary ethical theories.” These include theories, such as nihilism, according to which no action is better than any other, as well as relativistic theories according to which no ethical theory is better than any other. In this article I present a new response to such deflationary ethical views. Drawing a distinction between acceptance and rejection, on the one hand, and belief and disbelief, on the other, I argue that we have strong reason to reject these theories, even if we do not have reason to disbelieve them. In Section I, I clarify the question of what ethical theory we should accept, and I argue for the central importance of this question. In Section II, I discuss what I call “absolutely deflationary” ethical theories. These are theories according to which it matters not at all what we do or not at all what ethical theory we accept. I argue that it is generally rational to reject any theory of this kind. In Section III, I discuss what I call “relatively deflationary” ethical theories. These are theories according to which it matters little what we do or what ethical theory we accept. I argue that we have strong pro tanto reason to reject theories of this kind. And then, in Sections IV and V, I reply to some common objections to my arguments. Throughout, I will be arguing not that deflationary ethical theories are false but only that we should reject them from the practical point of view as a basis for guiding our actions.

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Jake Ross
Illinois State University

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