Validation and Vindication:
An Analysis of the Nature and the Limits
of Ethical Arguments*

Herbert Feigl

Published in Readings in Ethical Theory, Selected and Edited by Wilfrid Sellars and John Hospers (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1952): 667-80.

The following schematic dialogue was constructed with the intention of illustrating some of the typical turns and twists which occur almost invariably when argument in moral issues is pursued through successive levels of critical reflection. A more systematic formulation of the philosophical conclusions that may be derived from a study of such justificatory arguments will be presented in the second part of this essay.


A.: Under what conditions can war be morally justified?
B.: Under no conditions. I am a convinced pacifist and conscientious objector. There is no greater evil than war and deliberate killing.
A.: Would you rather be killed or enslaved than do any killing? Are there no circumstances, such as a need for self-defense that would justify killing?
B.: There are none.
A.: If vou were saying that wanton killing and cruelty are to be condemned, I should heartily agree with you. But there are occasions in which killing is the only choice: a necessary evil, surely, but justifiable because it may be the lesser evil in the given circumstances.

The point of view of the radical pacifist is unreasonable. More lives might ultimately be saved, and greater happiness for a larger number of people might result if the innocent victims of aggression were to wage a victorious war upon the aggressor. This is essentially the same reasoning that I would apply to the situation in which, for example, a robber threatened my own life or that of a friend.

B.: I admit that all these are very unfortunate situations. My sincerest efforts would be devoted to prevent their very occurrence (by whatever suitable means: education, reform, arbitration, compromise, reconciliation, etc.). But once such a situation arises I still believe that one should not kill.
A.: How do you justify this position?
B.: How does one justify any moral judgment? Obviously by deriving it from the basic moral laws. Respect for the life, the rights, the happiness of others is surely such a basic norm, is it not?
A.: I shall be curious to find out how such basic moral laws are proved or established. But before we enter into this deep question, tell me how you defend such a rigid adherence to non-violence, even if you yourself may easily become the victim of aggression or war.
B.: I shall not invoke religious principles here. Perhaps I can convince you if I make you aware of the consequences of the pacifist attitude. Once practiced by many it would tend to spread by way of emulation and thus sooner or later eradicate the evil of killing altogether.
A.: This is an optimistic assertion concerning the probability of certain consequences. In any case it is a question of fact which is not easily decided. However, your disagreement with me seems to go beyond whatever we may think about the facts, namely the conditions and consequences of attitudes. True enough, in your last remark you have tried to establish a common basis of evaluation. You appealed to a humanitarian principle which I do share with you. Still, I think that to kill is morally better than to be enslaved. Since you disagree with me on this, it is obvious that we diverge in some of our basic norms. This divergence in attitude can apparently not be removed by considerations of fact.
B.: Are ethical principles then a matter of personal whim and caprice?
A.: I did not mean to imply this at all. As our own cases show, we tend to have very strong and serious convictions in these matters. Far from being chosen arbitrarily, our moral attitudes are a result of the culture and the subculture in which our personalities are formed.
B.: We are not necessarily conforming to the prevailing patterns. I for one, am certainly not. I arrived at my views by independent and serious reflection.
A.: I don't wish to dispute it. And yet your attitudes are a causal consequence of many factors: heredity, environment (physical, and especially social; the influence of parents, friends, teachers, attractive and abhorrent examples, crucial experiences, etc.) and, yes, your (more or less) intelligent reflection upon the facts as they impress you-as-you-are.
B.: If you are right, there are limits beyond which rational (i.e. logical and/or factual) argument cannot be extended. Intelligent reflection concerning means and ends, conditions and consequences operates within the frame of basic evaluations. Beyond those limits there could be only conversion by persuasion (rhetoric, propaganda, suggestion, promises, threats, re-education, psycho-therapy, etc.). There are also techniques of settlement of disagreements by way of compromise, segregation (separation, divorce) or higher synthesis. By "higher synthesis" I mean, for example, the abandonment or severe restriction of the sovereignty of individual nations and a transfer of all sentiments of loyalty to a world government. Only if none of these techniques succeeds, then indeed coercion by violence, alas, seems inevitable. -- (Universal pacificism is the only solution! But that's not my point at the moment.)
A.:You have expressed my point of view very well. But you are obviously unwilling to agree to it.
B.:Indeed not. Everything in me cries out for a belief in objectively and universally valid standards of moral evaluation.
A.: You will not get very far if you assume some theological or metaphysical absolutes. Any reference to the revealed commands of a divine authority is futile. For you would have to tell how you can know those imperatives as divine; and even if you were to know them as such you would have to state a reason as to why anybody should obey them. The same criticisms apply to any alleged metaphysical insight into what man ought to be. And if you dismiss theological and metaphysical foundations for morality you will find it difficult to argue for standards that are independent of human needs and interests.
B.: It's precisely human needs and interests that provide a solid foundation for moral standards. In all cultures that we call 'civilized' there arc essentially the same ideals of cooperation (as opposed to conflict), of helpfulness (as opposed to harmfulness), of love (as opposed to hatred), of justice (as opposed to inequity), and of perfection and growth (as opposed to stagnation and decay). Cultural relativity and the variability of human nature have been exaggerated. There is a significant core of essential features shared by all human beings. Human nature as it is constituted biologically and psychologically, and as it finds its existence in a context of interdependence with other human beings, could scarcely fail to develop just those ideals of morality. I admit that these ideals are only rarely fulfilled or even approximated in actual conduct. But they are the standards of ethical evaluation. It is with reference to this frame that we make our judgments of "good" and "bad," "right" and "wrong."
A.: Much as I share your ideals, I can't refrain from calling your attention to the fact that there are notable exceptions that restrict severely not only the universality of certain types of conduct (this is what you admitted), but also the universality of the very standards or ideals of morality. To many an ancient or oriental culture the idea of perfection or progress remained completely strange. The prevailing ideologies of capitalism and nationalism basically extol the ideals of competition over those of cooperation. Only superficially and often hypocritically do they pay lip service to humanitarian or Christian ideals. And the very principle of justice (in the sense of equal rights for all) has been flouted not only by tyrants, aristocrats and fascists but also by such eminent philosophers as Plato and Nietzsche. Our own divergence on the issue of radical pacificism is equally a case in point. There are countless further, possibly secondary and yet radical divergencies as regards attitudes toward civil liberties, sex and marriage, birth control, euthanasia, the role of religion (church and state), animals (vegetarianism, vivisection), etc., etc.
B.:Disregarding the secondary divergencies, I must say that the deviations from the more fundamental and true moral ideals are simply perversions and corruptions. Whoever denies the principles of justice and neighborliness is immoral. Kant was essentially right and convincingly logical in defining moral conduct by his categorical imperative. Only a principle that is binding for all and excludes any sort of arbitrary privilege and partiality can justifiably be called ethical. The ideals that I enumerated are the very essence of what is meant by "morality." To be moral consists precisely in placing oneself in the service of interests and ideals that transcend purely selfish purposes.
A.: This is what you mean by 'morality.' (And, of course, it is in keeping with traditional morality). But Nietzsche, for example, explicitly proposed a revolution in all traditional morality. Clearly, he considered his own value-system as the "true ethics." Are you not aware that you are begging the very question at issue? You speak of "true moral ideals"; you call certain views "immoral," "perverse," "corrupt"; you say that only certain types of principles can "justifiably be called ethical." You are using persuasive definitions1 here. You call "moral" or "ethical" only such doctrines or principles as agree with your own convictions about what is right. The fascination with the "logicality" of Kant's categorical imperative may in part lie in its implicit appeal to some version of the principle of sufficient reason: If there is no reason to discriminate (as regards rights and obligations) between two persons then such discrimination is willful, arbitrary, unjust. But far from involving strictly logical contradictions such "unjustifiable" discriminations would merely violate one (not as you would say "the") definition of justice. A reason for discrimination could always be found. That it may not be accepted as a "good," "relevant" or "sufficient" reason is but a consequence of the ethical principles or fundamental evaluations of some alternative system. Let me assure you again that I share your moral attitudes. But strongly as I feel about them, I see no need for, and no profit in defending them with bad logic. You cannot by some verbal magic establish justifications for ideals which only obviously are neither logically nor empirically unique. These ideals compete with genuine alternatives.
B.: I can't believe this. The ideals that I have listed are the ones that will benefit humanity in the long run. Not just a particular group, but all of mankind.

Moreover these ideals are comprised by the essence of rationality. Man, the rational animal, is by his very nature not only characterized by his capacity for adequate deductive and inductive thinking, but also by his sense of justice and his abhorrence of violence as a method for the settlement of disputes.

A.: You are still begging the question. Those who do not accept the principle of equality are not interested in all of mankind. Furthermore, your time-honored conception of human nature is clearly not an account of actual fact, but of an ideal (by no means universally shared) which you utilize for a persuasive definition of MAN. You won't convince any serious opponents by mere definitions. But you might try to entice, persuade, educate or reform them in other ways. You may also hope that the increasing interdependence of all of mankind on this planet will eventually generate a fundamental uniformity in the principles of moral evaluation.
B.: You underestimate the role of experience in the settlement of moral conflicts and disputes. Those who have had an opportunity to experience different ways of life soon learn to discriminate between the better and the worse. Experience in the context of needs and interests, of claims and counter-claims, of existing and emerging rights and obligations in the social milieu soon enough mould the moral conscience of man. We do not live in a vacuum. The constant encouragements and discouragements of our actions and their underlying attitudes form the very atmosphere of the life in the family, the workshop, the market place, the tribunal, etc. Add to that the basic sympathy human beings feel for each other and you will have to admit that there is a large mass of empirical factors that operate in the direction of a common standard of social morality.
A.: If I may use a parallel drawn from the field of aesthetics, there are a great many people who prefer pulp-magazine stories to "good" literature; or swing (jazz, jive or whatever is the fashion) to "great" music.

Similarly, there are plenty of people who have had an opportunity to experience both the ruthless and the kindly way of life and yet subscribe to the principles of the former. Kropotkin rightly, though somewhat sentimentally, pointed out that despite the cruel struggle for existence in the animal kingdom there is also a good deal of mutual help and self-sacrifice. If human sympathy were as fundamental as (he and) you claim it is, there could hardly be such views as those of Nietzsche, Hitler, and Mussolini on the "greatness" of war. Only by endorsing one norm against other possible alternatives can you avail yourself of the premises by which to validate the special moral precepts which are dear to your heart.

B.: You still have failed to give me a single good reason why I or you or anyone should adhere to even those moral principles which we happen to share. Your position is a skepticism that could easily lead to moral indifference and cynicism.
A.: And what sort of a reason do you expect me to give you? If I provided you with premises from which you could deduce our moral standards, you would ask me for a justification of those premises. And you surely don't want a reason in the sense of a motive. You are motivated already. You do not seriously entertain doubt as long as this motivation prevails. And nothing that I've said was intended to undermine it. The aim of my remarks was clarification; not education, fortification or edification. Too many philosophers have sold their birthright for a pot of message.


The foregoing argument illustrates among other things the ever-present pitfalls of the petitio principii in the procedures of justification. If the radical pacifist is accused of an exaggerated value-fixation upon "reverence for life" he is free to retort that his opponent has a hypertrophied value fixation upon liberty or upon the survival of the greater number of persons. In order to condemn some value-fixations as inhumane, immoral or perverse, it is necessary to invoke some ideals or standards of humaneness, morality or normality. It is only with reference to such ideals or standards that we can justify the approval of thrift, honesty, friendship, the devotion to science or art, etc. and the disapproval of avarice, hypocrisy, belligerence, sexual aberrations, etc. From a purely factual psychological or socio-psychological point of view all value-fixations may be explained in terms of some causal-genetical principles, such as Wundt's "Heterogony of Purposes," Allport's "Functional Autonomy," or some other laws of motivation as formulated in psychoanalytic or behavioristic theories.

Let us suppose that socio-historical and anthropological research could show that there are basic invariant moral ideals embodied in otherwise diverse cultures. Even then it cannot be denied that the rank-order of the normative force of these ideals has varied with time, clime, and cultural conditions. Wise moral philosophers along with the great dramatists and novelists of the ages have always known that moral problems in their most poignant and irresoluble form consist in the conflict of good with good or right with right. The understandable hope for the demonstration of one unique set of standards in terms of which an objective and universally binding adjudication of all moral issues could be achieved, may well turn out to be chimerical. Only if certain basic -- and to many people all-too-obvious-valuational premises are taken for granted, can we obtain the semblance of objective deducibility of more special moral rules. If, for example, we take for granted that the life of the species homo sapiens is to be preserved, that conflict and violence is to be minimized, then a great number of special precepts are derivable from these premises taken together with special facts and laws concerning human conditions and behavior. The truth implied in the critique of the "naturalistic fallacy" reduces to the truism that factual statements alone cannot possibly entail normative conclusions. Some normative premises are indispensable.

If rational argument, criticism or justification is to be distinguished from persuasion by means of the emotional and motivational expressions and appeals of language, what are the forms of such reasoning and what are its criteria of validity?

The classical doctrine of self-evidence as a criterion of validity or truth still exerts its powerful influence. Brentano, Husserl and the phenomenologists; G. E. Moore, C. D. Broad, W. D. Ross, A. C. Ewing and other recent English intuitionists have revitalized this ancient (and Cartesian) tradition. There is scarcely any space here even to remind the reader that this philosophical point of view is open to the most serious objections. Its relevance to the truth of the axioms of geometry have become suspect since the developments of the non-euclidean geometries and their application in modern physics and astronomy. More fundamentally, the recent developments in the philosophical foundations of logic and mathematics have shown that self-evidence is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for truth or validity. The better intentions of the intuitionists to the contrary notwithstanding, the doctrine of self-evidence is at fault precisely because it is psychologistic. The accent of self-evidence is a result of habituation. Basic principles or presuppositions which delimit a certain universe of discourse or specify a certain field of validating procedures acquire the appearance of absolute cogency and uniqueness, because they form the indispensable (and hence within this context unquestioned) conditiones sine qua non of the very enterprise which they make possible and for which they legislate. Finally intuitive self-evidence cannot possibly be claimed to yield absolutely unique or indubitable knowledge. Notoriously and especially in regard to moral judgments (not to mention aesthetic evaluations) there is no unanimity on just which principles are self-evident. It requires some arrogance to claim one's own intuitions infallible, and the disagreeing intuitions of others as in need of revision (by "deeper reflection," "re-education," "enlightenment," etc.).

At this point one of the most crucial questions in all philosophy arises: Are the justifying principles of knowledge, i.e. the principles of deductive and inductive logic, as undemonstrable and as much lacking uniqueness as are the norms of moral judgments? If intuitive cogency is to be abandoned as a criterion of truth, are we not faced with an analogous plurality or relativity in regard to basic presuppositions in the field of cognition?

Only a few suggestions can here be made as regards these burdensome scruples.2 Firstly, the validity of deductive or inductive inference is presupposed in ethical argument. But no distinctly ethical norms are required for the validation of knowledge-claims. Reasoning in matters of morality utilizes, as any reasoning must, principles of deductive inference when special cases are subsumed under general (in this case, moral) rules. And in any practical issue of moral choice, inductive inference is indispensable for the determination of the most likely consequences of actions. There is no question then, that in the context of validation, the principles of cognition are more fundamental than the norms of morality. In this sense we may safely claim the "primacy of pure reason." Secondly, despite the fashionable notions about "alternative logics" it can be shown that at least the rules of deductive inference possess a uniqueness which, even if not present in the same degree, is also characteristic of the rules of inductive inference.

In order to grasp this situation clearly, a fundamental distinction, often badly neglected or blurred beyond recognition, must now be drawn: When we speak of "justification" we may have reference to the legitimizing of a knowledge-claim; or else we may have in mind the justification of an action. The first case may be called "justificatio cognitionis" (validation) the second, "justificatio actionis" (vindication). The rules of deductive and inductive inference serve as the justifying principles in validation; purposes together with (inductively confirmed or at least confirmable) empirical knowledge concerning means-ends relations, or in the extreme, degenerate case with purely logical truths, serve as the basis of vindication (pragmatic justification). Only ends can justify means, even if in accordance with the well known slogan it will be admitted that a given end may not justify the utilization of every means for its attainment.

The word "reason" displays ambiguities similar to the word "justification." Besides naming a capacity of the human mind (part of which is the ability to state reasons) it is used in referring to causes and purposes, as well as to grounds of validation. Aristotle, Schopenhauer, and many thinkers between and after, have struggled to disentangle these and other meanings of "reason." Kant's distinction between the questions "quid facti" and "quid juris" has shed a flood of light on the basic issues of philosophy and has since become indispensable for the analysis of the problems of epistemology and ethical theory.

The justifying principles (justificantia) for the establishment of knowledge-claims have been retraced to their ultimate foundations in the rules of inference and substitution in deductive logic. We cannot without vicious circularity disclose any more ultimate grounds of validation here. Similarly the rules of maximal probability in inductive inference form the ultimate validating basis of all empirical reasoning. Correspondingly the supreme norms of a given ethical system provide the ultimate ground for the validation of moral judgments. No matter how long or short the chain of validating inferences, the final court of appeal will consist in one or the other type of justifying principles. Rational argument presupposes reference to a set of such principles at least implicitly agreed upon. Disagreement with respect to basic principles can thus only be removed if the very frame of validation is changed.3 This can occur either through the disclosure and explication of a hitherto unrecognized common set of standards, i.e. still more fundamental validating principles to which implicit appeal is made in argument, or it can be achieved through the pragmatic justification of the adoption of an alternative frame, or finally, through sheer persuasion by means of emotive appeals.

Validation terminates with the exhibition of the norms that govern the realm of argument concerned. If any further question can be raised at all, it must be the question concerning the pragmatic justification (vindication) of the (act of) adoption of the validating principles. But this is a question of an entirely different kind. The answers we can give to this sort of question are apt to appear trivial, but for the sake of philosophical clarification they are nevertheless indispensable and illuminating. If the logical reconstruction of justification is pursued as here suggested, then even an obvious, not to say utterly trivial, vindication will at least make fully clear which aims are attained by means of the adoption of some specified validating principles. Thus it is quite plain that the adoption of the rules of deductive inference is pragmatically justifiable in that only reasoning which accords with them can insure the transition from true propositions to other true propositions. No vicious circularity is invoked here. We are not attempting the (impossible) validation of ultimate validating principles. We can afford, and could not possibly refrain from, using logic in a vindicating argument, precisely because we are here concerned with arguments about means-ends relations. There is a similar vindication, formulated by H. Reichenbach4 for the adoption of the principle of induction. The reasoning in both cases is purely deductive because of the extreme (degenerate) nature of the question at issue. In regard to induction the following holds: If there is an order of nature at all (and we don't know that there is and we don't know that there isn't -- beyond the scope of actual observations) then the method of simplest generalization is the only method of which it can be demonstrated (deductively) that

  1. it can (but of course need not) succeed in disclosing that order and
  2. that it is self-corrective.
This obvious, simple tautology provides a pragmatic justification of the adoption of the rule of induction for anyone who wishes to attain the two mentioned aims, namely to make true inductive inferences (e.g. predictions) and to be able to keep such inferences adaptable to the accumulating evidence.

It may be charged that our analysis is outrageously artificial; that we never have occasion to "choose" a basis of validation; that in real-life-situations we find validating and vindicating arguments so intimately fused, that their separation distorts severely the dialectics of both cognitive and valuative arguments. My reply is, firstly, that all logical analysis from Aristotle through Descartes down to our time necessarily consists of an artificial and schematic reconstruction5 and its illuminating character depends precisely upon the disentanglement of factors or aspects which, though admittedly fused in ordinary argument are in danger of being confused in philosophical reflection. Secondly, I would say that those who make the charge under discussion, characteristically resolve the problems of justification simply by a fiat of definition. Induction, for example, is said to need no justification because the rule of induction defines (at least in part) what we mean by "justifiable inference." Similarly, as we have remarked already, such moral principles as those of justice or benevolence may be claimed to constitute (at least in part) what we wean by a "(rational) morality." If this sort of analysis results in a clear explication of the legislative principles of a given domain of validation, I should gladly admit that it is a helpful step in the clarification of philosophical perplexities. But it should be equally clear that this procedure is apt to rest its case simply with a persuasive definition of certain key-terms such as "rational," "valid," "probable," "morally right," etc. Once aware of the persuasive character of these definitions one should wish, in all candor, to state why one finds them persuasive. And the answer to this question must clearly refer to one's interests, purposes or ideals. Thus, while vindication can never prove (validate) any principles of validation, it can clarify their role in the context of human thought and action.

The validating principles of deductive and inductive logic do not seem at all to have any plausible alternatives or competitors. This is so, very likely because in this age of science our conception of the criteria of valid and reliable knowledge have already been so sharply focussed and so severely purged of pre-scientific (non-scientific and unscientific) elements. The purposes of the cognitive enterprise are today so clearly delimited that its basic criteria (but of course not its special methods and techniques) have attained practically universal consent.

It is only too tempting to hope for a similarly universal code of morals. But in view not only of the stark realities of group and culture-centered ethical standards, but also because of the ever present quandaries regarding the priority between the several supreme standards ("prima facie obligation," i.e. the validating principles of moral judgments) within a given group or culture we can scarcely expect a universal unanimity of purposes which would vindicate a set of unique standards and a rigid order of priority among them for any and all questions of moral decision. At this point, I must concede, that the relativism implicit in the emotivist analyses (of Stevenson, for example) may prove insuperable. But beyond this important concession I would stress that the emotivist assimilation of moral issues to questions of personal taste and preference does not even begin to do justice to the nature of argument and justification in the moral realm of discourse. There is a great deal of validation in ethical arguments which is only too easily lost sight of, if attention is primarily fixed upon persuasion or vindication.

In analogy to the analysis of justification in the cognitive domain I suggest that moral judgments are to be reconstructed as knowledge-claims and as subject to validation (or invalidation) by virtue of their accordance (or non-accordance) with the supreme norms of a given ethical system. In order to carry out this reconstruction, judgments of right and wrong, and likewise statements of obligation and of rights, must be construed as empirical propositions. This is possible only after these typically normative terms (and other relatives and derivatives "good," "evil," "desirable," "condemnable," etc.) have been given a factual reference in addition to their positive or negative emotive appeals. This means that we make, in this context deliberately a legitimate device of what in other contexts must indeed be repudiated as the "naturalistic fallacy."6 This amounts to construing moral norms in the logical form of general laws. But in contradistinction to the general laws of the empirical sciences the moral laws are not subject to confirmation or disconfirmation by empirical evidence -- at least and certainly not in the same sense. Their logical character is rather that of basic definitions or conventions for the use of normative terms with reference to empirical aspect of conduct, intentions, attitudes, personality traits and social objectives. In regard to the factual content as well as in their critical function, normative moral terms are quite similar to such terms of medicine as "healthy," "diseased," "normal," "abnormal," "well-functioning," "mal-functioning," etc. Just as in questions regarding normality or abnormality in medicine we require a factual content (in addition to the emotive appeals) of these terms, in ethics. We need likewise factual reference in order to break through the circle of formal tautologies (such as "the good is that which it is right to accomplish") and to attach these formal-and-emotive terms to empirical aspects of the facts of individual and social life.

Only with a reconstruction of this sort can we escape the sterility of formalism in ethics. If we wish to know for example whether killing in self-defense is morally right, we cannot get an answer unless definite and empirically specified moral rules (including priority-rules as between standards) are provided as justificantia cognitionis of the correctness of the moral judgment at issue. Obviously the same considerations apply to questions of distributive and retributive justice, to the evaluation of the various virtues, of measures of social, legal, political reform, etc.

It is a simple consequence of the proposed analysis and reconstruction that it is futile to criticize one system of norms in terms of another which is logically incompatible with it. Validation of moral judgments always requires a set of given norms to which we must hold fast, at least temporarily, in order to examine the validity of more special moral judgements. As in the case of the justification of cognition, so here in the domain of ethics, the only further step concerns vindication. The purposes which may be adduced in vindicating arguments for a whole system of moral norms are embodied in the individual interests and social ideals which we have come to form in response to life experience. The principle of justice (the golden rule) or other implicit definitions of "right actions" may, for example, be vindicated by reference to the ideal of a peaceful, harmonious and cooperative society. Or the principle of benevolence may be vindicated by reference to the ideal of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. We see then that the perennial dispute between deontological and teleological theories in ethics may perhaps be settled by the recognition that the former are concerned with validation, the latter with vindication.

The present approach differs from both the intuitionistic and the emotivist point of view (and is in more than one way closer to the Kantian) in that the great variety of self-evident prima facie obligations countenanced by the intuitionists and the corresponding equally great variety of interest-fixations allowed for by the emotivists are supplanted by a relatively small number of basic norms and priority rules. Naturally, the task of demonstrating that this is an adequate and feasible reconstruction is enormous and has here been barely suggested. In contradistinction to the Kantian metaphysics of morals a plurality of alternative ethical systems is here envisaged as a matter of historical and contemporary fact. As long as there are changing and divergent terminal purposes and ideals there will be different systems of moral validation. The moral approval of a given ideal is of course trivially validated by the system which that ideal vindicates; and, contrariwise, trivially invalidated by an alternative incompatible system. -- But enough has been said about the dangers of the petitio principii.

One final question: Does the pluralism and relativism implied in the preceding remarks rule out objectivity in ethics? As may be expected by now, the answer depends upon the precise meaning which one is going to connect with the term "objectivity."

The objectivity of the truths of arithmetic lies in their logical necessity. Anyone who understands the postulates and definitions of arithmetic and complies with the rules of deductive logic will concede the universal validity of arithmetical truth The objectivity of propositions of factual knowledge means something different: the intersensual and intersubjective confirmation of knowledge-claims, -- and everything that these phrases imply, especially the principles of confirmation. "Objectivity" in the moral domain may mean a variety of aspects:

  1. The logical necessity inherent in validation.
  2. The logical consistency of the norms of one system.
  3. The factual objectivity of the characterization of the empirical features of attitudes, conduct, etc. which are the subject of moral appraisal.
  4. The factual objectivity of statements regarding conditions-consequences and means-ends relations.
  5. The factual objectivity of statements concerning human needs, interests and ideaIs as they arise in the social context.
  6. The conformity of the norms with the basic bio-psycho-social nature of man, especially as regards the preservation of existence, the satisfaction of needs, and the facts of growth, development and evolution.7
  7. The degree of universality with which certain moral norms are actually or potentially embodied in the conscience of man within given cultural groups or perhaps even in cultural groups of all times and climes.
  8. The equality of all individual persons before the moral laws -- as conceived in the universal applicability of these laws.

Crucial questions arise only in regard to the factual truth of the seventh point and the significance of the eighth. The actuality of universally common standards, as we have pointed out, is problematic. Only at the price of a precarious attenuation of meaning, if not of the risk of tautological vacuity, could one defend this claim. As to the potential convergence towards common standards we may allow for a cautious optimism. Finally, and perhaps most critically, there remains the question whether we shall mean by an "ethical norm" one which embodies a thorough-going impartiality. If so, then we have by definitional fiat implied the essence of the principle of justice the very conception of "moral law." But when we speak of the "ethics" of feudalism, or even of the "ethics" of Nazism, along with the "ethics" of Christianity, or the "ethics" of democracy, we obviously utilize a different definition covering much more ground. Of course, we arc free to declare that "fascist ethics" is a contradiction in terms; i.e. we may decide that a code of norms for the appraisal of conduct is to be called "ethics" only if it embodies at least the principles of benevolence and impartiality. But must we then not conclude that the word "ethics" itself is subject to persuasive definition?


* This essay is a revision of an earlier (hitherto unpublished and altogether different) version of my essay "De Principiis Non Disputandum . . . ?" included in Philosophical Analysis, edited by Max Black, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N. Y., 1950. In "De Principiis. . . ." the problem of justification is discussed not only with reference to ethical principles but also in regard to the more fundamental principles of deduction, induction and the criterion of factual meaningfulness. -- For an important analysis of closely related issues see also the essay by Wilfrid Sellars: "Language, Rules and Behavior," contained in the volume John Dewey, Philosopher of Science and Freedom, ed. S. Hook, The Dial Press. New York, 1950.

1 This useful phrase was coined by C. L. Stevenson. In his book Ethics and Language (Yale University Press. 1944), p. 210 he explains it as follows:

"In any 'persuasive definition' the term defined is a familiar one, whose meaning is both descriptive and strongly emotive. The purport of the definition is to alter the descriptive meaning of the term, usually by giving it greater precision within the boundaries of its customary vagueness; but the definition does not make any substantial change in the term's emotive meaning. And the definition is used, consciously or unconsciously, in an effort to secure, by this interplay between emotive and descriptive meaning, a redirection of people's attitudes."

2 For a fuller discussion, cf. "De Principiis non disputandum ...?," See reference in footnote *.

3 For an extremely important and clarifying discussion of the distinction between questions within a presupposed frame and questions concerning the frame itself (in connection with closely related issues) cf. R. Carnap: "Empiricism, Semantics and Ontology," Revue Internationale de Philosophie 11, Jan. 1950.

4 Experience and Prediction, University of Chicago Press, 1938; §§ 58, 39; also: "On the Justification of Induction," Jl. of Phil. 37, 1940, reprinted in Feigl and Sellars, Readings in Philosophical Analysis, Appleton-Century-Crofts, N. Y., 1949; and The Theory of Probability, University of California Press, 1949.

5 See my article "Logical Reconstruction, Realism and Pure Semiotic," Philosophy of Science, 17, 1950, pp. 186-195.

6 This fallacy was most infelicitously labeled by G. E. Moore. As I view the matter, Moore's criticism should have been directed against the confusion of motivative appeals with factual meaning; or more closely in keeping with Moore's intentions, against the confusion of the phenomenological "oughtness" (its relatives and opposites) with the empirical characteristics of conduct with which these intuitively given (and indeed phenomenologically unanalyzable) qualities of moral awareness are associated.

7 This elementary but important point stressed in naturalistic ethics from Aristotle down to the philosophizing biologists of our time, is apt to be neglected by purely analytic philosophers.

Transcribed into hypertext by Andrew Chrucky, Nov. 10, 2003.