Is Ethics Analytic?

Is Ethics Analytic?

The analytic-synthetic distinction regards the truth of premises. One of the first thinkers that introduced this distinction is Imannueal Kant (1724), followed by thinkers like Gottlob Frege (1848) and Willard Van Orman Quine (1908) who challenge Kant’s judgments on the analyticity of assertions. Essentially, an analytic proposition means that its truth or falsity is determined by logical reasoning. On the other hand, the truths or falsities that come of synthetic propositions are determined by experience. Analytical truths are theoretical, or a priori, whereas synthetic truths are sense-experienced, or a posteriori. This begs the question: is ethics analytical? Are human ethics determined through reason or is it based on human experience? I believe ethics is based on a posteriori rather than a priori; ethics is not analytical, but synthetic.    

For Kant, analytical truths can be defined as those that establish concepts within the subjective concept, the analytical truth obtained through the analysis of concepts. He believes that the view of the knowledge of analytic truths derives from the analysis of concepts; an analytic truth is a truth whose predicate is contained in its subject concept (Weiner 10). Synthetic truths, on the other hand, are those that cannot get through analysis of concepts. Synthetic truths can only be established by appeal to facts. As Frege understands, Kant states that valid derivation - whose only premises are analytic truths and definitions - should be regarded as an analysis of concepts; and conclusions of such arguments regarded as analytic (Weiner 14). Frege offers a new characterization of analyticity in that an analytic truth is a truth that can be established by a derivation that relies only on definitions and general logic laws. Quine, on the other hand, states modern empiricism has been conditioned by one of two dogmas; one being a belief in some fundamental cleavage between truths which are analytic, or grounded in meanings independently of matters of fact; and in synthetic truths, or truths grounded in meaning independently of matters of fact, or grounded in fact. However, Quine believes that there is no prevalent difference between what is analytic and what is synthetic (Quine 20). 

Being that analytic propositions are propositions that are theoretical, or a priori, and synthetic truths are sense-experienced, or a posteriori, features between what constitutes as analytic and synthetic can be distinguished in order to determine whether a sentence is analytic or synthetic. For instance the statement, “A doe is a female deer,” is analytical. The statement, “A doe is a female deer” is analytical because it is an irrefutable truth; the definition of the word doe is a female deer and cannot be anything else (for example, doe cannot mean a male deer, or a female frog). In a strict and literal sense, doe cannot be said to be anything else besides a female deer. It is an objective truth that “a doe is a female deer”.  

On the other hand, the statement “Racoons live in Toronto,” is synthetic. The statement “Racoons live in Toronto” is synthetic because it is something observed by people who have experienced raccoons as inhabitants of the city of Toronto. Those who have never been to Toronto, or those that reside in an area of Toronto where raccoons are scarce, cannot say for certain that there are racoons living in Toronto. The fact that racoons live in Toronto is not a truth that is objectively true, but subjectively true. 

A sentence can be determined to be analytic when it is objective, that is, its truth is true whether it is believed or not. For instance, someone may explain to another that the definition of the word doe means a female deer, however the one they explained it to does not believe that doe means female deer; whether or not the person believes doe means female deer or not is true regardless if they disregard the definition of.  A sentence can be determined to be synthetic when it is subjective, that is, it is truth based on someone’s perspective, or feelings, or opinions; someone may make a statement regarding a particular experience that is true for them, but is different for someone else regarding the same experience. Like if someone states that raccoons live in Toronto, because they live in Toronto and have seen racoons living in the forest across their street; however, someone living in a different area of Toronto may observe that racoons do not live in Toronto anymore and have migrated to Oakville and are currently living there instead of Toronto. Of course, that is not to say that one truth is more true than the other; analytical truths are not as true as synthetic truths, and synthetic truths are not as true as analytic truths. Both analytic and synthetic truths, a priori and a posteriori statements, are true in their own right but under different conditions.  

When considering the claim that we should always perform the action that leads to the maximum pleasure, I believe the sentence to be synthetic. And as the claim that performances should always be acted upon so it leads to the maximum of pleasure extends to the notion of the statements made on behalf of ethics, ethics itself is synthetic. That is, ethics are not objective, but subjective, in that, as ethics govern an individual’s behaviour and conduct, what is considered to be ethically true or false, is a synthetic truth that has different implications for different individuals. Whether or not the moral claim is true or not, I believe moral claims such as “we should always perform the action that leads to the maximum pleasure” are synthetic claims rather than analytical (even though a lot of thinkers have gone about the process analytically). 

Kant, on the other hand, argues that ethics is analytical in that ethics is an established concept within the subjective concept, and is obtained through the analysis of concepts. That being said, as Kant views knowledge as a priori in that knowledge must be derived from reason and logic, the Kantian understanding of the knowledge of moral principles (such as ethics) must also come from analytic truths. I believe that this is very prevalent in Kant’s Categorical Imperative, wherein which it represents as objectively necessary of itself, without reference to an end. The Categorical Imperative declares the action to be of itself objectively necessary without reference to some purpose, that is, even apart from any other end (Kant: 4:415). 

And although Frege and Quine do not necessarily hypothesise human ethics, I believe that - for reasons similar to Kant - Frege would also believe ethics to be analytic; and Quine would not distinguish ethics as either or, but a part of both analytical and synthetic statements, depending on its truth. 

Although I find truths in the readings of Kant and his Categorical Imperative, in Frege and Quine that I especially believe to have importance, I cannot certainly say that ethics is analytical. I believe ethics to lean towards being synthetic (or a posteriori) because what one regards as ethical or not, how one may believe morality to be, does not initially derive from extensive logic or reasoning. I believe, first and foremost, how one conducts their morality and ethics, and how they differ from what is right and what is wrong, is recognized with initial feelings and sensibility. I believe that what is thought to be ethical is innate within us and is therefore felt before it is thoroughly reflected upon as right or wrong. Therefore, ethics is synthetic.

Works Cited 

Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals: On Supposed Right to Lie Because of 

Philanthropic Concerns. Translated by James W. Ellington, Hackett Pub., 1981. 

Quine, Willard Van Orman. “Two Dogmas of Empiricism .” Ryerson D2L,


Weiner, Joan. “Frege Explained, Chapter 2.” Ryerson D2L,


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