Contextualism in Ethics

In Hugh LaFollette (ed.), The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. Hoboken, NJ: Blackwell (2013)
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There are various ways in which context matters in ethics. Most clearly, the context in which an action is performed might determine whether the action is morally right: though it is often wrong not to keep a promise, it might be permissible in certain contexts. More radically, proponents of moral particularism (see particularism) have argued that a reason for an action in one context is not guaranteed to be a reason in a different context: whether it is a reason against an act that it breaks a promise or inflicts pain might depend on the particulars of the situation. In moral epistemology, Timmons (1999: Ch. 5) argues that whether a moral judgment is epistemically responsible depends both on the basic moral outlook of the moral judge and on whether the context of judgment is one of engaged moral thinking, or one of distanced, skeptical reflection. In the former, the judge’s basic moral outlook can serve to justify the judgment; not so in the latter (see epistemology, moral). Our focus here, however, will be on forms of metaethical, and more precisely semantic, contextualism in moral discourse and moral thinking. According to these forms of contextualism (henceforth “metaethical contextualism,” or just “contextualism”), the meaning or truth-conditions of a moral judgment depend not only on the properties of the act it concerns, but also on features of the context in which the judgment is made, such as the standards endorsed by the moral judge or the parties of the conversation. If metaethical contextualism is correct, it might be that when two persons judge that abortions must be banned, one person’s judgment might be true whereas the other person’s is false, because they accept different fundamental norms. This would undermine the idea that there are objectively correct answers to moral questions. Metaethical contextualism is supported from three directions. First, what is expressed by terms such as “good” and “ought” seems to be context-dependent when used outside ethics, being dependent on a variety of interests and concerns. One might therefore expect similar context dependence when these terms are used to express moral judgments, assuming a corresponding variety of interests and concerns in moral contexts. Second, many have thought that deep moral disagree- ments suggest that the interests and concerns behind moral judgments do vary in this way. Finally, contextualism promises to make sense of what seems to be an intrinsic yet defeasible connection between moral judgments and moral motivation, by tying the meaning or truth-conditions of moral judgments closely to interests and concerns of moral judges. At the same time, contextualism faces two broad kinds of problems: to make sense of the seemingly categorical or objective preten- sions of moral claims, and to explain why the parties to deep moral disagreement often behave as if they were disagreeing about substantive issues rather than talking past each other. In the sections that follow, we look closer at both sources of support and problems for contextualism.

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Gunnar Björnsson
Stockholm University


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