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Are There Unresolvable Moral Disputes?

  • Peter Glassen (a1)

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Those who uphold what is commonly called the “emotive” theory of ethics are apt to maintain, as a consequence of that theory, that at least some moral disputes, if not all, may be in principle unresolvable, no matter how much time is allotted to the disputants to enable them to try and come to an agreement. The reason is this: Moral judgments, according to the emotive theory, in its most extreme form at any rate, do not assert anything but merely express attitudes of approval and disapproval. When two people apparently affirm contradictory moral judgments—Smith, for example, saying “Divorce is wrong” and Jones saying “No, divorce is not wrong”—they do not, in the last analysis, disagree in belief, they disagree in attitude.

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1 In an article entitled “On Approval”, The Philosophical Review, April, 1958.

2 It might seem that there are instances where this would not be so. Suppose that A and B have exactly the same beliefs about O, including the belief that O will be conducive to A's interests but will be detrimental to B's interests. In that case A might well approve of O, the subjective basis of his approval being self-interest, and B might well disapprove of O, the subjective basis of his disapproval also being self-interest—i.e., the same subjective basis as that of A's approval. But in fact the subjective bases of their attitudes would not be the same. The subjective basis of A's approval is, true enough, self-interest, but that in the case of A, is his interest in A's welfare, and the subjective basis of B's (disapproval is his interest in B's welfare.

3 Nor would there be sufficient space to do so. But the reader who is interested in this question should consult the writings of the so-called moral-sense school, viz., Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, and Adam Smith. When these writers inquired into the “origin” or the “foundation” of morals, at least one of the things, and one of the most important things, they tried to find out was, what is the subjective basis of moral approval. Their answer (which I happen to think is correct) was, of course, that it is what they variously called “benevolence”, “fellow-feeling”, “sympathy”, or “the sentiment of humanity”. It is this, and not their (or at least Hutcheson's) conception of a moral sense, that constitutes their most important contribution to ethical theory; and yet this contribution is almost universally ignored by present-day writers in the field.

Are There Unresolvable Moral Disputes?

  • Peter Glassen (a1)

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