Schopenhauer's Rejection of the Moral Ought

In Patrick Hassan (ed.), Schopenhauer's Moral Philosophy. Routledge. pp. 12-30 (2022)
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More than a century before Anscombe counseled us to jettison concepts such as that of the moral ought, or moral law, Schopenhauer mounted a vigorous attack on such prescriptive moral concepts, particularly as found in Kant. In this chapter I consider the four objections that constitute this attack. According to the first, Kant begs the question by merely assuming that ethics has a prescriptive or legislative-imperative form, when a purely descriptive-explanatory conception such as Schopenhauer’s also presents itself as a possibility. According to the second, Kant’s purportedly philosophical ethics is in fact a theological ethics in disguise, because the moral ought and its prescriptive cousins presuppose a divine lawgiver. According to the third, Kant’s conceptions of the moral law as a law of freedom, and of moral imperatives as categorical or unconditioned, involve him in contradictions. Finally, Schopenhauer objects that there can be no such thing as a moral ought because a binding ought or law must be understood to operate through appeals to self-interest, which stands in opposition to morality. I contend that these last three objections are sound and that the fourth in particular succeeds in confuting the prescriptivist conception of morality.

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Stephen Puryear
North Carolina State University


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