Autonomy, ethical

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L007-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 18, 2024, from

5. The autonomy of ethics

The autonomy of ethics uses ‘autonomy’ in a sense not directly related to the autonomy of agents. It is the thesis that ethical principles or claims cannot be reduced to, or explained in terms of, statements containing no normative terms (see Logic of ethical discourse §§2–4). ‘Normative terms’, such as ‘ought’, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘just’ and ‘unjust’, are those which state the intrinsic value of, approve or recommend an action or state of affairs, or state that there is reason to perform certain actions or pursue certain ends. (They contrast with ‘descriptive terms’, which describe or report purely factual states of affairs.) The autonomy of ethics, for example, can allow claims about what is right to be explained in terms of the good (or vice versa), but holds that any such explanation of an ethical claim must use some normative language. Theorists who accept the autonomy of ethics can include intuitionists, for whom ethical statements are claims about mind-independent ethical properties, such as rightness or goodness (see Intuitionism in ethics); noncognitivists, who take ethical claims to express attitudes of approval or recommendation (see Analytic ethics); or practical reason theorists, who hold that ethical claims are based on principles of practical reason – principles which we accept in virtue of being rational (see Practical reason). Common to these theories is the view that the normative aspect of ethical discourse is not capturable in language devoid of normative terms.

More broadly, the autonomy of ethics includes the independence of ethical theory both from other areas of philosophy and from the natural and behavioural sciences. This does not mean that ethical theory can ignore these fields. Rather, it means that questions about the content and validity of fundamental moral principles do not depend on answers to questions of, for example, metaphysics, epistemology, or philosophy of mind, and that they are not dictated by the results of empirical inquiry. Ethical theory, as concerned with normative questions, has its own distinctive subject matter and tools of inquiry. To give one example, modern Kantians have thought that the moral principles that we accept should not be restricted by a picture of motivation derived solely from empirical inquiry, rejecting the idea that our motivational capacities can be described without any reference to normative principles. If we can be motivated by our acceptance of moral principles, then certain motivational states can be described only by reference to the reasoning that underlies them. Moral theory is then required for insight into certain of our motivational capacities (see Rawls 1975, 1993; Nagel 1970).

Citing this article:
Reath, Andrews. The autonomy of ethics. Autonomy, ethical, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L007-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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