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An outline of a system of utilitarian ethics

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 April 2013

J. J. C. Smart
Affiliation:
Australian National University, Canberra
Bernard Williams
Affiliation:
King's College, Cambridge
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Summary

Introductory

Such writers as J. S. Mill, H. Sidgwick and G. E. Moore, as a result of philosophical reflection, produced systems of normative ethics. Of recent years normative ethics has become distinguished from meta-ethics, which discusses the nature of ethical concepts. Indeed, as a result of the prevalence of ‘non-cognitivist’ theories of meta-ethics, for example those of C. L. Stevenson and R. M. Hare, normative ethics has fallen into some disrepute, at any rate as a philosophical discipline. For non-cognitivist theories of ethics imply that our ultimate ethical principles depend on our ultimate attitudes and preferences. Ultimate ethical principles therefore seem to lie within the fields of personal decision, persuasion, advice and propaganda, but not within the field of academic philosophy.

While it is true that some ultimate ethical disagreements may depend simply on differences of ultimate preference, and while also the non-ultimate disagreements depend on differences about empirical facts, about which the philosopher is not specially qualified to judge, it nevertheless seems to me to be important to prevent this trend towards ethical neutrality of philosophy from going too far. The meta-ethical philosopher may far too readily forget that ordinary ethical thinking is frequently muddled, or else mixed up with questionable metaphysical assumptions. In the clear light of philosophical analysis some ethical systems may well come to seem less attractive. Moreover, even if there can be clear-headed disagreement about ultimate moral preferences, it is no small task to present one or other of the resulting ethical systems in a consistent and lucid manner, and in such a way as to show how common, and often specious, objections to them can be avoided.

Type
Chapter
Information
Utilitarianism
For and Against
, pp. 1 - 74
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 1973

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