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Ethics as Social Science

The Moral Philosophy of Social Cooperation

Leland B. Yeager

With this important book, esteemed economist Leland B. Yeager grounds moral and political philosophy in the requirements of a well-functioning society, one whose members reap the gains from peaceful cooperation while pursuing their own diverse goals.
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Chapter 2: Some Fundamentals

Leland B. Yeager


LEVELS OF INQUIRY This chapter introduces concepts and questions to which later chapters return in detail. Before considering what sorts of argument and evidence can support an ethical doctrine, we should distinguish between different levels of discussion: 1. Prescriptive or applied ethics, ethics on the operating level. a. Precepts or maxims of behavior (sometimes, perhaps misleadingly, called intuitive ethics). b. Critical reflection on these precepts and maxims and their application. Metaethics. 2. This classification, being just that, does not match hard and fast features of reality. (It roughly follows Brink 1989 and Hare, cited below.) The boundaries between (1a) and (1b) and between (1b) and (2) are not sharp. Still, the distinctions can be useful. Discussion on level (1a) takes the maxims of popular morality pretty much for granted. It judges right and wrong. It recommends what kinds of behavior and traits of character to cultivate. It condemns lying, cheating, and stealing and exhorts benevolence. Some such prima facie maxims are indispensable. Attempts to do without them and to calculate the consequences of every decision directly would founder on biased perception and reasoning, defects of knowledge, and lack of time. Thinking on the critical level, (1b), becomes necessary when generally applicable maxims appear to clash, when exceptional circumstances suggest overriding a maxim, and when a person reflects on appraising, choosing, and modifying the prima facie maxims themselves (Hare 1981, esp. Chapters 2 and 3, 1989EiET, pp. 110, 189-90, 202-3, 221, 237-8). Some examples of particular moral issues are these. Under...

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