The issue of generality in ethics

Journal of Value Inquiry 26 (4):511-524 (1992)
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Does ethics have adequate general theories? Our analysis shows that this question does not have a straightforward answer since the key terms are ambiguous. So we should not concentrate on the answer but on the question itself. “Ethics” stands for many things, but we let that pass. “Adequate” may refer to varied arrays of methodological principles which are seldom fully articulated in ethics. “General” is a notion with at least three meanings. Different kinds of generality may be at cross-purposes, so we must not expect theories to be general in sundry senses. “Theory,” for that matter, is itself ambiguous. Some thinkers say that ethics cannot have theories, while others deny it. We doubt whether opposing parties are talking about the same things.No wonder, then, that controversies in ethics are long-lasting and unproductive. We hope that the methodology we have presented will alleviate some of them. The examples we chose show that this is feasible. Views such as Hare's and Jonsen and Toulmin's which are seemingly wide apart, show convergence if we put them in a methodological perspective.Our analysis also suggests that many alleged differences between science and ethics could fade away if methodology is brought to bear on them. Specifically, the idea that ethics compares poorly with science in view of limited generality, or poor means of justification, is unfounded. Those who defend this view over-rate the powers of science

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Bert Musschenga
VU University Amsterdam


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