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Logic of ethical discourse

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L045-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 13, 2024, from

Article Summary

Logic, as a discipline, is largely concerned with discovering principles and methods for evaluating the evidential strength between the premises and conclusions of arguments. Because the meanings of terms (and the concepts they express) that occur in arguments bear importantly on questions about evidential relations, much of the work on the topic of logic and ethics has been preoccupied with questions about the meanings of moral terms and concepts, and with the correct linguistic analysis of sentences that contain them. Taking logic to include issues about meaning (which has commonly been done by those who refer to the so-called ‘logic of moral discourse’) is to construe the subject broadly. But the field of logic is often construed quite narrowly to refer to the study of formal languages whose syntax, axioms and inference rules are sufficiently determinate to allow decisions about what counts as the theorem in such a language. On the narrower understanding of logic, the intersection of logic and ethics has mainly to do with work in deontic logic. This article takes up issues concerning the intersection of ethics and logic broadly construed. The intersection of logic and ethics concerns questions about the nature of moral reasoning. Some philosophers have attempted to deduce substantive moral conclusions from factual statements – in particular, to derive ‘ought’ statements from ‘is’ statements. If one can successfully carry out such deductions, then moral reasoning is guided properly by consideration of nonmoral facts from which moral conclusions can be derived. However, the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume is often credited with arguing that no such deductions are correct; that there is a gap between factual ‘is’ statements and moral ‘ought’ statements. There is disagreement over whether or not Hume’s negative claim is correct; but even if it is, there may still be logical features of moral concepts that impose constraints on proper moral reasoning.

One such widely discussed constraint is the thesis of universalizability, according to which relevantly similar cases must receive the same moral evaluation. One implication of this thesis is that moral judgments about particular cases entail universal moral principles and so some have argued that all correct moral reasoning must be understood in terms of subsuming particular cases under general moral principles. Although many philosophers have accepted this subsumptive model of moral reasoning, it has come under attack by philosophers who argue that proper moral reasoning is primarily a matter of sensitively discerning the morally relevant details of a case under consideration and rendering a moral judgment about it without the guidance of principles.

Citing this article:
Timmons, Mark. Logic of ethical discourse, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L045-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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