Is Russell right that ethics is not a branch of philosophy?

Edward asked:

Do you agree with Bertrand Russell that ethics is not a branch of philosophy?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

Did Russell say that? where? (Comment if you know.)

University departments of philosophy offer courses in ethics. So at first sight it seems a bit odd to claim that ethics is not a branch of philosophy. Then again, you might be taking a course in logic. Is logic a branch of philosophy? Hardly.

There is a subtle difference between the two cases. A course, say, in first-order predicate logic or axiomatic set theory might have philosophy undergrads sitting side by side with maths undergrads. Same course, same subject. What the philosophy students do with the knowledge they gain from the course is different from the maths students. Questions arising from logic are central to philosophy, especially in the analytic tradition. However, logic is also one of the constituent parts of mathematics, along with set theory, number theory etc.

As a rule, you don’t find courses in ethics for philosophers and non-philosophers. There was a time, not that long ago, when a book of all the branches of human knowledge might contain a chapter on ethics, not as philosophy but rather as a set of rules and prescriptions widely accepted in society. Today, it’s very difficult to find agreement on what those rules or prescriptions should be. The nearest equivalent would be something like medical ethics, which is practised by health professionals and embodied in principles of professional association and the Hippocratic Oath.

The point Russell was making is this. You can talk about ‘ethics’ without actually doing philosophy. Most people have ethical beliefs. Questions of medical ethics are generally not decided by philosophers but by the governing bodies of physicians and other health professionals. Or take Christian ethics, which is an aspect of Christian teaching. The point of reference is the Bible and the Catechism, not the views of this or that philosopher.

Philosophers are interested in ethics because of the challenging problems raised by the questions concerning the foundation of ethics, and the basis for deciding between rival ethical claims. For philosophers, a course on ‘ethics’ would be a course on ‘moral philosophy’.

The term, ‘meta-ethics’, as a second-order discipline is sometimes used to describe inquiry into different theories of ethics. However, philosophers also look at philosophical justifications for different ethical claims as a first-order inquiry. So it can sometimes be difficult to draw a precise line between thinking about ethics in a non-philosophical way and thinking about ethics in a philosophical way. The point is that if you are thinking about ethics in a philosophical way, you are not just thinking about ethics. I guess that’s what Russell was driving at.


2 thoughts on “Is Russell right that ethics is not a branch of philosophy?

  1. ethics is about subjective truth. metaphysics and epistemology are about objective truth. there is no objective value. it’s proven by the regress argument. a big reason for why ethics is considered philosophy is that not all people agree with the arguments against objective value or they don’t just know about them. I don’t call ethicians philosophers, because then we would all be philosophers. just because you have an opinion and you know it doesn’t make you a philosopher. ethics is mostly about listing and finding out the opinions of people.

  2. Interesting article. Given that philosophy deals with abalytics, as well as speculativeness, and in possible world scenarios, I would say ethics is much a branch of philosophy as logic, given that both deal with how we ought to think, or behave. Both deal with “is’s” as much as “oughts!”

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.