Moral objectivity and responsibility in ethics: A socratic response to Hume's legacy in the 20th century

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Current debate in metaethics includes the question of objectivity. What does it mean for a moral prescription to be objective? It is easy to see how matters of fact are objective, and it is also easy to see how matters of taste are subjective. But what about matters of morality? Given the diversity in moral beliefs and practices it appears these cannot be matters of fact. Are they thus matters of taste? If so, we are left with the unlivable conclusion that all moral prescriptions are beyond rational scrutiny. David Hume expressed these problems in a way that continues to be influential today: 'Tis as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowled'd lesser good to my greater' (Hume, 2003: 2.III.ii). Resolving problems about moral objectivity is further complicated by the philosophical presuppositions of analytic philosophy that have dominated the 20th century, initiated in the work of G.E. Moore, and promulgated in theories such as logical positivism and ordinary language philosophy. Contemporary thinkers from both the cognitivist and the non-cognitivist camps have tried to demonstrate that moral claims are objective in the sense of being subject independent. By considering contemporary appeals to the ideally rational self to establish objectivity, and objections to rationality as a ground for objectivity, it will be argued that objectivity can be grounded in the good which in turn is grounded in human nature. This approach can be found in the Socratic denial of knowingly doing evil, and out of this a foundation for moral objectivity can be developed that does not require an appeal to the individual's mental state and which preserves individual responsibility for knowing the good.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)178-191
Number of pages14
JournalHeythrop Journal - Quarterly Review of Philosophy and Theology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Religious studies
  • Philosophy


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