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Most (universal) ethical systems which I have encountered come up with some kind of a priori rule (e.g. "maximize happiness and minimize pain", or the categorical imperative) and then apply that rule to various situations in order to figure out what course of action is ethical.

But I think that an ethical statement such as "murder is wrong" is actually a psychological statement about how (the vast majority of) humans conceptualize murder. In other words, "murder is wrong" means "If you ask people whether murder is wrong, the vast majority will say yes." If we have a moral statement which has no large majority on either side, we may deny both the statement and its opposite as in error theory ("[Political issue X] is not a moral issue at all."). Alternatively, we may claim that there is a truth to the matter but that cultural and social differences are obscuring it from measurement ("Either [X] is moral, or it's immoral, but it's so politicized that we can't get a good empirical measurement right now. Maybe in a century or two things will settle down.").

This has the advantage that it tends not to disagree with people's intuitive ideas about ethics, while still being (arguably) a form of moral realism. It has the disadvantage that ethical positions may shift over time as attitudes change. Although at any particular moment all ethical statements have well defined truth values, these values might be different from what they were a century ago or what they will be a century hence.

So my question is this: Has anyone studied or described this kind of ethics? Who should I read?

  • Have you read Mortiz Schlick's "Problems of Ethics"? Of note, the author was actually murdered. – Mr. Kennedy Mar 11 '17 at 19:47
  • Is it a disadvantage that morals change with time (and place)? Or is it just the case? Also, when you say "M is W" is a psychological statement do you mean this because the answer is only intelligible as "murder is wrong to me"? (And this whether or not the opinion is largely agreed upon or not). You might enjoy this video on meta-ethics – Mr. Kennedy Mar 11 '17 at 21:44
  • Your observations agree with Hume's:"In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not..." – Conifold Mar 12 '17 at 23:34
  • "a small attention wou’d subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv’d by reason." An "a priori rule" of value is needed to link "is" to "ought", trying to do without it "empirically" is the naturalistic fallacy. Psychological statements are not moral or ethical unless we add something like "people ought to behave the way that large majorities feel is right" as the rule of value. – Conifold Mar 12 '17 at 23:42
  • @Conifold: The system I have described is an a priori rule: I am providing a definition of the word "ought." – Kevin Mar 12 '17 at 23:48
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There's a few different things going on in your question.

If we focus on,

But I think that an ethical statement such as "murder is wrong" is actually a psychological statement about how (the vast majority of) humans conceptualize murder. In other words, "murder is wrong" means "If you ask people whether murder is wrong, the vast majority will say yes."

There are several different views (or parts of views at work here). First, there's an aspect of moral non-cognitivism (see SEP metaethics, a further article, and the article on cognitivism vs. non-cognitivism ) in the claim that moral claims are psychological statement. There's also a dash of moral relativist if the main point is that ethical questions are decided by majorities in cultures.

In some later parts of that paragraph, you are specifying a more broad claim that the ethical values have a social foundation. This claim is not identical with moral relativism in that the value itself might be a value not merely from the social. For social foundations of ethics, Hegel is a big fan (see Philosophy of Right).

Moving to your first paragraph, I will quote it its entirety:

Most (universal) ethical systems which I have encountered come up with some kind of a priori rule (e.g. "maximize happiness and minimize pain", or the categorical imperative) and then apply that rule to various situations in order to figure out what course of action is ethical.

This paragraph strikes me as being anti-theory or situationalist in its outlook. This view is sometimes attributed to GEM Anscombe for the view in modern moral philosophy and also her book Intention (I have not read the latter at this point). I also am familiar with it from Robert Roberts.

All of that to identify people working on each point of what you're saying. But all of the points together are hard to find in one place because the anti-theory tendency doesn't jive well with the social foundations of morality claim or the ethics is psychology claim -- at least when these are taken to be theories about morality.

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"So my question is this: Has anyone studied or described this kind of ethics? Who should I read?"

It is not really a kind of ethics, it is ethics, and yes some have studied and described this conundrum. You should read the definitions from a dictionary or wikipedia.com for the following words: ethics, morals, politics, good, bad, kill, murder, and semantics. People often define words differently in their own minds than what is in the dictionary. Many arguments are over semantics. You might say that the thing you want to study is, actually, semantics. One definition of murder is, "the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another". This is different from kill, "cause the death of (a person, animal, or other living thing)". Governments often endorse killing while not considering it to be murder. So the question you might really be getting at would be: is it good or bad to kill? However, good and bad are rather generic, and so another question arises: good or bad for who? As far as a universal answer, the question moves toward theology. As one philosophizes upon these subjects they reach a point where they have to choose between philosophies. I choose to be a pacifist and avoid killing and fighting. Sometimes I have to kill bugs that get in the house, but I feel bad about that. I try to shoo them out of the house sometimes.

  • Sorry, but "go read the dictionary" wasn't really what I was looking for. I wanted a philosophical text or author. – Kevin Mar 11 '17 at 20:52
  • I'm sorry, I didn't mean it that way. I was trying to make a point about semantics, in that the answer is found in the inherent meaning of the words. – takintoolong Mar 11 '17 at 20:59
  • Unfortunately, that means you have not answered the boldfaced question (i.e. "What should I read?"), so I am unable to upvote this answer. – Kevin Mar 11 '17 at 23:16
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I would say that there can never be an empirical ethics, since 'empirical' is used to refer only the evidence of our physical senses.

But an ethical system can be grounded in knowledge. You won't see the ethical system of the Perennial philosophy changing from millennium to millenium.

Also, while it is dependent on logic more than empiricism an ethical system can be created from analysis in metaphysics. Schopenhauer is good on this. For instance, he explains altruism as the 'breakthrough of a metaphysical truth'. For his view ethics is the same now as it was ten million years ago and always will be.

My immediate criticism of consequentialism is that nobody has the slightest idea what the outcome of their actions will be in the long term. What counts in ethics is our motives, not our actions.

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Most (universal) ethical systems which I have encountered come up with some kind of a priori rule (e.g. "maximize happiness and minimize pain", or the categorical imperative) and then apply that rule to various situations in order to figure out what course of action is ethical.

I'm going to label two parts of your question that come from the same paragraph.

[1] But I think that an ethical statement such as "murder is wrong" is actually a psychological statement about how (the vast majority of) humans conceptualize murder. In other words, "murder is wrong" means "If you ask people whether murder is wrong, the vast majority will say yes." If we have a moral statement which has no large majority on either side, we may deny both the statement and its opposite as in error theory ("[Political issue X] is not a moral issue at all.").

[2] Alternatively, we may claim that there is a truth to the matter but that cultural and social differences are obscuring it from measurement ("Either [X] is moral, or it's immoral, but it's so politicized that we can't get a good empirical measurement right now. Maybe in a century or two things will settle down.").

Note that [1] and [2] contradict one another, but you don't seem to have noticed. According to [1], the view you want to take in [2] is false because there is nothing to discover.

You should concentrate on actually being able to state a particular position without contradicting yourself. You might say you are just listing two different ideas, but if you are doing that it's impossible for me or anyone else to tell which position you are advocating.

This has the advantage that it tends not to disagree with people's intuitive ideas about ethics,

No. Your view, whatever it is, agrees with your intuitive ideas about ethics, which I'd guess are a muddle of ideas you've picked up more or less by accident because they happened to be around when you were doing a philosophy course or something.

while still being (arguably) a form of moral realism. It has the disadvantage that ethical positions may shift over time as attitudes change.

Position [1] has many disadvantages.

First, how many people constitute the vast majority of humans and why? Your position can't answer that question because there is no non-arbitrary answer.

Second, on any issue on which there is a disagreement you should express no position. And the more people adopt your idea, the fewer people will express a position on controversial topics, so those issues will never be settled if your position becomes widespread. Also, since your moral position is that morality is about what the vast majority of people think is moral and the vast majority of people would not accept your position, your position implies its own falsehood.

Third, your position is completely unable to explain why people change moral positions over time. the root of the problem is that [1] doesn't recognise any objective morality that people could discover apart from what views people actually hold. So [1] is just subjectivism dressed up by saying a majority have to agree on something: the whims of a majority define morality.

Fourth if you're going to deny a load of issues about what to do are moral issues, you would leave people with no way of deciding what to do on those issues.

Fifth, I think you might be a bit surprised about how much stuff is not decided on your view. For example, there are whole countries where the prevailing view seems to be that it's okay to torture and murder homosexuals. So you should express no opinion on that since we don't have an agreement of the vast majority of people. The same is true of whether abortion should be legal.

Finally, in many cases where the majority might have an opinion, your position is impractical as a guide to action. 'Should I have an abortion?' 'I don't know. I would have to hold a poll to determine the majority opinion on what you should do in your particular circumstances.'

Position [2] is simply nonsense. If morality is objective, then it's not a matter of measuring what people think. If [1] is true, then there is no question of saying that there might be an objective fact of the matter about morality because you have defined morality as what the majority of people want.

I recommend that you read some Ayn Rand since she is good at making short work of positions like the one you expressed above. See the title essay in "Philosophy: who needs it" and "The virtue of selfishness".

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I think you're looking for Experimental Philosophy. From the wikipedia article:

Experimental philosophy is an emerging field of philosophical inquiry that makes use of empirical data—often gathered through surveys which probe the intuitions of ordinary people—in order to inform research on philosophical questions. This use of empirical data is widely seen as opposed to a philosophical methodology that relies mainly on a priori justification, sometimes called "armchair" philosophy, by experimental philosophers.

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