Topics Worth Investigating

  1. Clarify, as best you can, the nature of the purported real existence of objective moral values as presupposed by a normative science of ethics. If moral facts exist, are there any other viable ways of knowing them than intuition or some sort of process similar to that described by Plato in Books VI and VII in the Republic?

  2. Analyze the analogical reasoning that ethics as a science is similar to the physical sciences. Just as there is no exactly completed universally valid theory of everything[1] so likewise the exact formulation of a universally valid ethical code has not been completed either. Westermarck writes, "But what, then, has made moralists believe that moral judgments possess an objective validity which none of them has been able to prove?" Why cannot we also ask what has made scientists believe a final scientific theory can be completed and possess an objective validity none of them has been able to prove? Are the ad ignorantiam arguments[2] of the two disciplines similar? Is the word "science" being used in two different senses? If so, clarify what the two senses of the word are being used.

  3. Compare and contrast Westermarck's views on conscience in this reading selection with Alexander Bain's view expressed here:

    It may be proved, by such evidence as the case admits of, that the peculiarity of the Moral Sentiment, or Conscience, is identified with our education under government, or Authority. Conscience is described by such terms as moral approbation and disapprobation; and involves, when highly developed, a peculiar and unmistakeable revulsion of mind at what is wrong, and a strong resentment towards the wrong-doer, which become Remorse, in the case of self. It is capable of being proved, that there is nothing natural or primitive in these feelings, except in so far as the case happens to concur with the dictates of Self-interest, or Sympathy, aided by the Emotions formerly specified.[3]

    Does Westermarck distinguish in practice between conscience and moral emotion or moral sentiment? Do moral emotions just coincide with moral right and wrong for Westermarck or are they causally linked to the judgments of right and wrong?

  4. Westermarck writes in defense of his view that intuition in ethics is not reliable: "[A] theory which leads to an examination of the psychological and historical origin of people's moral opinions should be more useful than a theory which postulates moral truths enunciated by self-evident intuitions that are unchangeable." Discuss whether his observation commits the genetic fallacy. Is it an oversimplification to assume that either ethical ideas are intuited a priori or they are an outcome of social and historical development? What are other possible origins of ethical concepts?

  5. In his plea for a fair hearing, Westermarck writes, "And what unprejudiced person can help changing his views if he be persuaded that they have no foundation in existing facts?" Explain whether this remark is actually a tautology and, if not, whether the remark helps his case.

  6. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict explains her reasons for ethical relativism as follows:

    Most of those organizations of personality that seem to us most incontrovertibly abnormal have been used by different civilizations in the very foundations of their institutional life. Conversely the most valued traits of our normal individuals have been looked on in differently organized cultures as aberrant. Normality, in short, within a very wide range, is culturally defined. … We recognize that morality differs in every society, and is a convenient term for socially approved habits. Mankind has always preferred to say, "It is a morally good," rather than "It is habitual," and the fact of this preference is matter enough for a critical science of ethics. But historically the two phrases are synonymous. The concept of the normal is properly a variant of the concept of the good.[4]

    How does Benedict's account here of the morally good differ from Westermarck's account? How does that difference relate to the plausibility of ethical relativism?

  7. After arguing that objective moral truth does not exist, Westermarck concludes that the only subject left for the science of ethics to study is the fact of moral consciousness. Yet it would seem that the only area left for inquiry would be an empirical psychological study of human thinking and behavior. Consequently, on Westermarck's view, without existent moral truth, would not it follow that any science of ethics would be impossible because there is no subject matter for any such study other than an empirical analysis of the process of socialization? After all, as Westermarck states,"[T]he aim of all science is the discovery of some truth." Would it then follow that if there's no moral truth, there can be no science of ethics?

  8. Discuss how you would think Westermarck would react to Solomon Asch's argument that the reduction of ethical judgments to desire and aversion or to reward and punishment cannot be made:

    When we admire an act of courage or when we are shaken by deceit and treachery, when we are determined to tell the truth even if it is painful … we are granting recognition to certain properties of action that are not described in the current categories of habit and desire. The reductionist interpretations fail us at the start; they cannot tell us by what alchemy the phenomena of which they speak give rise to the generic fact of value.[5]

    Asch is emphasizing social interactions do not, in themselves, determine values. A child, for example, seems to know when she is being unjustly punished. How is Asch's criticism related to G. E. Moore's naturalistic fallacy?[6]

  9. On the basis of his study of the Pirahã, an Amazonian people speaking a language with a non-recursive grammar, Daniel Everett concludes that Noam Chomsky's supposition of an innate universal grammar or biological language faculty is probably mistaken. He believes Occam's razor should lead us to conclude not that there is a special biological tendency for a constrained grammar but that, instead, there is a plasticity to the human mind such that no special innate faculty need be hypostatized.

    If recursion is not found in the grammar of all languages, but it is found in the thought processes of all humans, then it is part of general human intelligence and not part of a "language instinct" or "universal grammar," as Noam Chomsky has claimed. [7]

    Given Westermarck's conclusion that "the objective validity of moral judgments … cannot exist," explain why Westermarck does not similarly conclude by the principle of simplicity that there is no special human faculty of moral consciousness, and consequently, no special object of study for ethics.

  10. G. E. Moore criticizes a claim about moral emotion[8] Westermarck expressed in his earlier work The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas as follows:

    [Prof. Westermarck] holds that what I am judging when I judge an action to be wrong, is merely that it is of a sort which tends to excite in me a peculiar kind of feeling—the feeling of moral indignation or disapproval. … But there is one very serious objection to such a view, which I think that those who take it are apt not fully to realise. If this view be true, then when I judge an action to be wrong, I am merely making a judgment about my own feelings toward it; and when you judge it to be wrong, you are merely making a judgment about yours. And hence the word "wrong" in my mouth stands for an entirely different person from what it does in yours … if this view be true, then there is absolutely no such thing as a difference of opinion in moral questions.[9]

    Explain in some detail whether or not the account Westermarck gives in our reading answers G. E. Moore's objection that the notions of right and wrong cannot be based on psychological reaction.[10]

  11. Garner and Rosen argue that Westermarck probably was an ethical naturalist.[11] Ethical naturalism assumes there is no distinction between facts and values, and scientific knowledge and ethical knowledge are achieved by the same methodology. Hence, ethical terms are reducible to empirical terms. Westermarck states, "The theory of the emotional origin of moral judgments that I am here advocating does not imply that such a judgment affirms the existence of a moral emotion in the mind of the person who utters it." Given this thesis, how do you think Westermarck can account for a particular action being right or wrong even though no one has the requisite tendency to express approval or disapproval of the action?

  12. An essential part of Westermarck's theory is that "Emotions depend on cognitions and are apt to vary according as the cognitions vary." But, as there is no necessary connection between cognition as the faculty of thinking and feeling as the faculty of emotion, would not ethical subjectivism result? Would not "the facts of moral consciousness" simply differ from person to person? How, then, does Westermarck arrive at a notion of a societal ethics?

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The term "theory of everything" is used for any theory that unifies and explains all fundamental interactions of nature. Eds.


An ad ignorantiam argument is a claim that a proposition is true simply on the basis that it has not been proved false or that it is false simply because it has not been proved true. Many instances of this kind of reasoning are fallacious. Eds.


Alexander Bain, Moral Science: A Compendium of Ethics (New York: D. Appleton, 1869), 42.


Ruth Fulton Benedict, "Anthropology and the Abnormal," Journal of General Psychology 10, no. 1 (1934): 72-73.


Solomon E. Asch, Social Psychology (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1952) 357.


George Edward Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), 10.


Daniel L. Everett, Don't Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (New York: Vintage, 2008), 94.


For example, Westermarck writes, "'Ought' and 'duty' express only the tendency of an omission to call forth disapproval, and say nothing about the consequences of the act's performance." Edward Westermarck, The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, (London: MacMillan & Co., Ltd., 1906), I: 136.


G. E. Moore, Philosophical Studies (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1922), 332-335.


Ronald Firth describes Westermarck's view as a dispositional analysis: "Westermarck believes … that the meaning of statements of the form 'x is wrong,' can be expressed by other statements of the form 'The speaker tends to feel toward x (i.e., would feel in the absence of specifiable inhibiting factors), an emotion of disinterested moral disapproval which would be experienced by him as a quality or dynamic tendency in x.'" Roderick Firth, "Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer," Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 12, no. 3 (March, 1952): 320.


Garner and Rosen, 246-247.