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The Distinction of Morals: Description, Definition, Prescription

  • Sep 20, 2012 · 7:00 PM
  • This location is shown only to members

At a prior meeting (Aug. 23), a minidebate arose about whether or not general terms can be defined with precision. Answering negatively, one side cited "happiness" as a major example. Presumably, all other terms of such generality cannot be defined, beginning with "game" to "morality" and "volition" and so on. Rather than seeking to define general terms, one can only describe what the referents of the terms are. And the descriptions then end with what those things are, not what they ought to be. In other words, descriptions are the maximum limits to knowing about things generally.

The other side to the minidebate, answering positively, claimed that not only are the cited general terms definable, most referents of general terms have both descriptions and prescriptions.

This meeting picks up the minidebate by asking four sets of questions:

  1. What is a definition? Can it be defined, or can it only be described? If it can be defined, what other terms can be defined, or can every term be defined? Why have definitions?
  2. What is a description? Can it be defined, or can it only be described? What else can have descriptions? Why have descriptions?
  3. What is a prescription? Can it be defined, or can it only be described? What else can have prescriptions? Why have prescriptions?
  4. If there are any, are definitions true? Should they be true? Are prescriptions true? Should they be true? How are the terms related: description, definition, prescription? How does a description of what is, related to a prescription of what ought to be? And if it does relate affirmatively, is the relation descriptive or prescriptive or both?

Where do you stand?

[Update, Friday, Sept. 14] If we have time, we can return to finish up some left-over topics. (See the prior meeting, Sept. 13.) Among them are the specific nature of sin, the problem of identifying goodness, and whether anyone should be moral.[end--update]

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  • Mark G.

    Good discussion tonight. We had some new people, including a philosophy professor.

    September 21, 2012

  • A former member
    A former member

    It was an exceptionally fun evening discussing many interesting topics and examples. I think Tom did a great job in managing time and was eventually able to get through his agenda. Side conversations would inevitably pop up and being a good organizer he would allow us a little lee-way and then gently bring us back to the main conversation.

    September 21, 2012

  • Tom O.

    We sped through the outline and covered quite a bit of philosophy.

    September 20, 2012

  • Theresa D.

    Why the pertinacious insistence on imposing definitions where they do not belong?

    August 26, 2012

    • Tom O.

      Thanks for the laugh out loud. Let's hope the meeting this evening will meet everyone's expectations.

      1 · September 20, 2012

    • Patricia

      That was funny!

      September 20, 2012

  • Tom O.

    It's a good question, and here is one answer, which does not tip the minidebate one way or the other: We would first want to know where and where not definitions may belong before we can be insistent on legitimately imposing them. However, the issue is not clear yet where definitions belong, but we do know that there are some definitions, hence the concept.

    August 26, 2012

    • A former member
      A former member

      Where do definitions not belong... that's quite a question but my initial answer would be "with the jibberish of children 4 and under."

      September 20, 2012

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