‘ought talk’ vs. practices

eduardo asks about how i distinguish between ‘ought talk’ and practices. I will offer two answers:First, the purpose of ethics is to produce good things and actions. I do not see why, however, we need to abstract from what we do in order to produce a theory of what is good only then to turn around and try to apply that theory (which usually doesn’t work because the theory has removed itself from ‘the real world’). Why can we not use language to describe what we do, though not with the intention of producing a general/objective theory of what is good, but rather in order to suggest small, gradual and (relatively) uncontroversial improvements? Why can we not skip the abstract theory and remain all the while in the concrete?Second, Socrates suggested a long time ago that all we need is to know what is good in order for us to do it. Christianity notably took exception to this assumption. Contemporary ethics has, however, taken it back up. Ethicists are solely concerned with telling us what (they presume) is good, assuming we will immediately jump to the task of simply doing it. How wrong they are! First, we humans don’t tend to work that way. And second, the good and bad we do is to a great extent determined by the institutions that make up the societies within which we live. Burning fossil fuels and thereby releasing too much carbon into the atmosphere might well be a very bad thing, but we cannot simply stop driving and flying at the tip of a hat. We need to figure out how to stop doing it (and i dont mean how to construct a more fuel-efficient car – that is for the scientists to worry about – i mean how to talk to people in order to get them to buy the more efficient car or how to change our governments so that they will start encouraging people to do so.)Much more important than coming up with theories of what is good (which are either very controversial or dead obvious) is figuring out how to actually do what is good. That is where ethical language needs to be concerned with describing our specific practices and suggesting ways of improving them instead of coming up with general ‘ought’ statements.We certainly still need ethical language (and perhaps even ought statements), but refining this language should imply making it fit our world better, not making it ever more general, abstract and …. well, useless. 


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