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Meta-ethics: An Introduction

2. Meta-ethical Theories

The table below lists the major theories in the field of meta-ethics, categorizing each of them by the type of theory they represent. The table also summarizes the concepts central to each theory and the philosophical problems each of them most naturally solves. On the other side, the classification highlights the most intractable problems raised by each theory's chief critics and lists the most well-known advocates for each view.

Type Name Core Concepts Solutions Objections Proponents

Cognitivism/Realism

Utilitarianism A naturalistic view of ethics that equates morality with facts about what promotes the welfare or interests of sentient creatures. On this view, 'good' means, for example, 'happiness' and 'right' means 'that which produces more good compared with alternative acts'.
  • explains common feeling that there are moral facts
  • explains grounding of ethics in questions about human welfare
J. S. Mill
Neo-Aristotelianism A naturalistic view of ethics that grounds ethics in facts about human nature and evaluates living things as specimens of their kind. On this view, the definition of the 'good' may include that which contributes to the survival and effective functioning of the species.
  • explains common feeling that there are moral facts
  • explains grounding of ethics in questions about human flourishing
G. E. M. Anscombe,
P. Foot,
P. T. Geach
Intuitionism A non-naturalistic view of ethics that sees moral qualities and obligations as part of the fabric of the universe, but outside the empirical realm perceived by our physical senses. On this view, moral qualities and obligations are perceived or apprehended by a special moral sense.
  • explains common feeling that there are moral facts
  • explains transcendence of ethics
  • explains immediacy of core moral judgements
  • avoids naturalistic fallacy
M. Huemer,
G. W. Leibniz,
H. J. McCloskey,
G. E. Moore,
W. D. Ross,
H. Sidgwick
Rationalism A non-naturalistic view of ethics that postulates that universalized moral rules can be deduced by reason alone. Such obligations, such as 'Do not commit suicide', apply to everyone everywhere and would be self-contradictory to deny.
  • explains impartiality of ethics
  • explains transcendence of ethics
  • explains universal nature of moral judgements
  • avoids naturalistic fallacy
  • commits is–ought fallacy
  • fails to justify many obligations as self-contradictory to deny
M. Huemer,
I. Kant,
C. Korsgaard

Cognitivism/Anti-realism

Cultural Relativism A type of relativism in ethics in which moral judgements are understood as the speaker's report of their social group's accepted norms of behaviour. On this view, 'Euthanasia is morally permissible', for example, means 'The culture to which I belong permits euthanasia'.
  • explains common feeling that there are moral facts
  • explains dependence of moral norms on social context
  • avoids reliance on supernatural and non-natural properties
F. Boas,
G. Harman,
E. Westermarck,
D. B. Wong
Subjectivism A type of relativism in ethics in which moral judgements are understood as the speaker's report of their psychological state of approving or preferring. On this view, 'Euthanasia is morally permissible', for example, means 'I am for euthanasia'.
  • explains common feeling that there are moral facts
  • explains intractability of divergent moral views
  • avoids reliance on supernatural and non-natural properties
D. Hume,
Protagoras
Constructivism The view that moral principles are determined through an idealized process of deliberation and agreement by rational agents. On this view, for example, 'Owning private property is permitted' may be seen as a liberty agreed by hypothetical rational agents kept blind of their position and status in society.
  • explains common feeling that there are moral facts
  • explains grounding of ethics in human social concerns
  • explains contractual and reciprocal nature of ethics
  • avoids reliance on supernatural and non-natural properties
D. Copp,
T. Hobbes,
J. Rawls,
T. M. Scanlon
Ideal Observer Theory A type of relativism in ethics in which the standard for morality is equated with what an impartial ideal observer with perfect knowledge and completely free of cultural bias would prefer.
  • explains common feeling that there are moral facts
  • explains impartiality of ethics
  • avoids reliance on supernatural and non-natural properties
  • commits is–ought fallacy
  • Ideal Observers may disagree on moral norms
  • no common human nature
  • fails to provide method for avoiding socialization effects
R. B. Brandt,
R. Firth,
D. Hume
Divine Command Theory A type of relativism in ethics in which what is good is equated with what God approves and what is right is equated with what God commands. On this view, for example, 'Killing is wrong' means 'God prohibits killing'.
  • explains common feeling that there are moral facts
  • explains transcendence of ethics
  • explains law-likeness of moral rules
R. M. Adams,
P. Copan,
P. Quinn

Non-cognitivism/Anti-realism

Radical Emotivism A naturalistic view of ethics that interprets moral utterances as expressions of emotions, attitudes or preferences and so sees them as devoid of descriptive meaning. On this view, for example, 'Killing is wrong' means 'Killing. Boo!' A. J. Ayer,
B. Russell
Expressivism A naturalistic view of ethics that interprets moral judgments as centrally expressions of attitudes, but allowing for some descriptive content. On this view, for example, 'Killing is wrong' may describe killing as harmful as well as express acceptance of a general prohibition against killing. S. Blackburn,
A. Gibbard,
D. H. Monro,
C. L. Stevenson
Prescriptivism A naturalistic view of ethics that interprets moral judgments as universal imperatives to act for any agent in a similar circumstance to the one judged. On this view, for example, 'Killing is wrong' means 'Do not kill'.
  • fails to explain common feeling that there are moral facts
  • fails to account for moral conscience
  • fails to account for moral judgements of dead people and past actions
  • fails to account for weakness of will
R. Carnap,
R. M. Hare

Below is a short description of the key problems faced by certain meta-ethical theories referenced in the above table.

is–ought fallacy:
This fallacy is variously known as Hume's law and Hume's guillotine and derives from David Hume's injunction that statements about what ought to be cannot be derived from descriptive premises alone, without the inclusion of a moral premise or assumption. [1739: book III, part I, sec. I]
naturalistic fallacy:
This fallacy gets its name from the supposed error exposed by G. E. Moore's open question argument. Moore argued that in taking any natural property, such as 'gives pleasure' or 'produces happiness', it is always an open question whether that property is good. Moore concluded that it is therefore a fallacy to define ethical terms, such as 'good', in terms of such natural qualities. [1903: ch. 3]
Euthyphro dilemma:
The name of this dilemma is inspired by Socrates' question to Plato's character, Euthyphro. Socrates asks Euthyphro, 'Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?' [Euthyphro 10a] Translated into modern terminology, the horns of the dilemma are these: If God loves the good because it is good, then goodness is independent of God's preferences. This option excludes the major premise of the divine command theory. On the other hand, if the good is good because God loves it, then to say that 'God is good' is to say vacuously that 'God loves God'. This second option also makes the attribution of goodness to particular people and things the result of an arbitrary act of God.
motivation to act ethically:
The problem of motivation is faced by meta-ethical theories that interpret moral utterances as propositions about speaker-independent facts. The problem arises in that such theories must explain how it is that we are inextricably motivated to want the good. It makes no sense for a speaker to say, for example, 'Charity is good' and 'I am not for charitable giving at all' at one and the same time.
logical inference in moral arguments:

The problem of explaining the logic of moral discourse is faced by non-cognitivist meta-ethical theories. This problem is well-articulated by P. T. Geach [1965: 463] by pointing to the following type of logical argument:

(Premise 1)   If killing is wrong, then killing James is wrong.
(Premise 2)   Killing is wrong.
(Conclusion) Killing James is wrong.

The problem arises in that the phrase, 'Killing is wrong', must have a different meaning in Premise 1 compared with its meaning in Premise 2 as the con-attitude to killing is hypothetical in Premise 1 and categorical in Premise 2.
moral facts:
The problem of the propositional form of moral utterances is faced by non-cognitivist meta-ethical theories. For example, when a speaker asserts that 'Hitler is evil', they appear to be stating a fact about Hitler and not simply expressing a like or dislike of Hitler.
moral conscience:
The problem of moral quandary and guilt is faced by meta-ethical theories that interpret moral utterances as principally expressions of the speaker's attitudes or preferences. If moral utterances are essentially expressions of the speaker's positive or negative attitude to something, then how is it that a speaker can be morally uncertain or concerned about one or more of their attitudes? The occurrence of moral indecision that conflicts with a desire (e.g., 'I want to go to the dance, but should I stay and look after my sick father?') requires some explanation.

In considering the merits of each meta-ethical theory, evaluate how well the theory explains the core features of morality, such as impartiality, motivation and disagreement. Also assess how effectively it deals with the main objections raised by its critics. In recent years, moral philosophers from opposing traditions in meta-ethics have converged somewhat to form new hybrid theories. When you are ready, explore a more detailed and nuanced landscape of meta-ethical positions in A Taxonomy of Meta-ethical Theories [Allan 2015b].

Copyright © 2015

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