Bertrand Russell: Moral Philosopher or UnPhilosophical Moralist?

In Nicholas Griffin (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Bertrand Russell. Cambridge University Press. pp. 475-506 (2003)
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Until very recently the received wisdom on Russell’s moral philosophy was that it is uninspired and derivative, from Moore in its first phase and from Hume and the emotivists in its second. In my view this is a consensus of error. In the latter part of this essay I contend: 1) that Russell’s ‘work in moral philosophy’ had at least three, and (depending how you look at it) up to six ‘main phases’; 2) that in some of those phases, it was not derivative, but on the contrary, highly original; 3) that Russell was a pioneer of two of the chief forms of ethical anti-realism that have dominated debate in this century, emotivism and the error theory (so that if the theory of Human Society was derived from emotivism, it was derived from a family of theories that Russell himself helped to create); 4) that the revolt against Hegelianism, which led to the birth of Analytic Philosophy, had an ethical dimension to it; and 5) that Russell played an important part in the debates that led up to Moore’s Principia Ethica, so that the view form which his own opinions were derived is one that he helped to develop. I also argue that Russell himself pioneered a rather puritanical conception of philosophy which tended to extrude his own writings on politics and practical ethics as not really philosophical. Since this conception has been largely abandoned, it is time to let them back into the fold. I argue that this views of practical affairs are often backed by interesting philosophical arguments, illustrating this thesis with a reconstruction and critique of Russell’s Hobbesian argument for world government.

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Charles R. Pigden
University of Otago


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