There seems to be no ethical system which does not rely on either the generalization of the mind (ie, arguments reliant upon compassion or empathy) or the assumption of some starting value (ie, "it's good to be kind to others" or "it's evil to harm others"). Should ethical systems aspire to something more epistemologically rigorous, and in any case, can they?

  • No and no. Values are not knowledge, nor can they be derived from knowledge alone, see Is–ought problem. One can organize a system of values more "rigorously", to make sure it is coherent, and use knowledge to align means with ends. But even then the model of mathematics, with few unexceptionable first principles and long chains of reasoning, is a wrong one. Ethics is far more sensitive to context and nuance, see Are analogies between ethics and mathematics philosophically coherent?
    – Conifold
    Dec 6, 2020 at 7:29
  • @Conifold If I understand the is-ought problem correctly, this means that for an ethical system to exist at all, it must rest on assertions about goodness, and cannot address why one ought to be good at all, save through tautology - is this correct?
    – CodeReaper
    Dec 6, 2020 at 9:15
  • Roughly. Values have a descriptive component to them (what it is that is valued) so it is more accurate to speak of value-laden claims "about goodness". On that basis one can answer why questions to a degree, by connecting such claims to each other and showing that they form a self-coherent system. One can also answer why be "good" in some particular ways, either as a special case or as a means to an end. But one can not justify such a system from outside, from non-value claims. This is not that different from justifying basics in other fields, in a circle, only the circle is much wider.
    – Conifold
    Dec 6, 2020 at 10:10
  • @Conifold That makes sense now, thank you.
    – CodeReaper
    Dec 6, 2020 at 19:03


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