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A.J. AYER - notes
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DescriptionNotes on A.J. AYER
The systems of ethics is very far from a homogeneous whole, not only is it apt to contain pieces of metaphysics but its content is of different kinds:
(1) Propositions giving definitions of ethical terms, or judgements about definitions
(2) Propositions describing the phenomena of moral experience and their causes (which belong to psychology or sociology)
(3) Exhortations to moral virtue (which are not propositions at all, and don't belong to philosophy or science)
(4) Actual ethical judgements (which can't be classified at all, but are not definitions, so don't belong to philosophy)
It is easy to see that only the first of our four classes can be said to constitute ethical philosophy.
Our strictly philosophical treatise on ethics will make no ethical pronouncements, but give an analysis of ethical terms.
Ethical philosophers often discuss the possibility of reducing all ethical terms to one or two fundamental terms. We are not concerned with which terms these might be (whether 'right' is 'good' etc), just if ethical terms can be translated into statements of fact.
We reject subjectivist and utilitarian analyses of ethical terms. Subjectivists view 'right' and 'good' as those things which are generally approved of, but it is not self-contradictory to assert that some generally approved actions are not right. A similar argument is fatal to utilitarianism. We cannot agree that to call an action right is to say that it would cause the greatest happiness, because sometimes it is wrong [cf slavery]. We should conclude that the validity of ethical judgements is not determined by their felicity [causing happiness], nor by people's judgements. We reject subjectivism and utilitarianism not as proposals of a new ethical system, but as ways of analysing ethical notions.
If we say 'x is wrong', this may be a normative moral judgement about 'x', or it may be a descriptive statement that 'x' is repugnant to a particular society. We are only concerned with normative ethics.
Moralists claim that they 'know' their moral judgements are correct. This is of purely psychological interest, is not verifiable and has not the slightest tendency to prove the validity of any moral judgement.
The correct treatment of ethical statements is afforded by a third theory, compatible with our empiricism.
We begin by admitting that fundamental ethical concepts are unanalysable, as there is no criterion of validity. They are mere pseudo-concepts. If I say "You acted wrongly in stealing that money", I am saying no more than "You stole that money", but attended with a certain feeling of the speaker. Another man may disagree with me about the wrongness of stealing, he may quarrel with my moral sentiments but he cannot, strictly speaking, contradict me. The ethical word is purely "emotive".
It is impossible to find a criterion for determining the validity of ethical judgements. Not because they have an 'absolute' value mysteriously independent of sense-experience, but because they have no objective validity whatsoever. If a sentence makes no statement, there is no sense in asking whether it is true or false. Pure expressions of feeling do not come under the category of truth or falsehood.
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