A Taxonomy of Meta-ethical Theories

2. Meta-ethical Theory Dimensions

2.1 Linguistic Analysis

Book cover: Principia Ethica by G. E. Moore

What do ethical terms such as 'good' and 'right' mean and how do these terms function in ordinary moral discourse? This aspect of moral language is encapsulated in the Cognitivism–Non-cognitivism dimension. This dimension characterises the extent to which the meta-ethical theory ascribes propositional weight to moral utterances. Cognitivists see moral utterances as having a robust truth value in much the same way as ordinary propositions or statements, such as, 'Ontario is the capital city of Canada'. For Cognitivists, moral utterances are essentially about beliefs. In this sense, Cognitivism can be seen as synonymous with Descriptivism. For Non-cognitivists, on the other hand, moral utterances are not propositional in nature at all. Non-cognitivist positions lend greater weight to moral utterances being expressions of attitudes, exhortations, commands or commitments. Semi-cognitivism straddles the middle ground, maintaining that the central meaning of moral terms is affective, but allowing some propositional content to moral utterances.

In this dimension, Cognitivism is further divided into three types. Naturalism is the view that moral facts are exhaustively facts about the natural world. Conversely, Non-naturalists regard moral properties as non-natural properties of things and events. Lastly, Relativists translate statements about moral properties into statements about the preferences of a privileged individual or the group to which the speaker belongs.

2.2 Metaphysical Commitments

To what do ethical terms refer? Do they refer to natural properties of things and events or do they refer to non-natural or supernatural entities? This aspect of meta-ethical analysis is captured in the Realism–Anti-realism dimension. Realist positions view moral values and rules existing in a mind-independent realm, ontologically separate from the judgements and preferences of particular individuals or groups. Anti-realist proponents, on the other hand, see moral values and rules as being inextricably embedded within and the manifestations of human or super-human judgements and preferences. This dimension mirrors the realist–instrumentalist divide in epistemology and tells another side of the story compared with the Cognitivism–Non-cognitivism dimension. Quasi-realism strikes an intermediate position between Realism and Anti-realism. On this view, speakers are regarded as identifying their moral judgements with some objective feature of reality, while at the same time maintaining that the affective aspect of moral judgements remains central to their meaning.

Note that on the Realism–Anti-realism dimension, Realism is not synonymous with Cognitivism. Subjectivism, for example, attributes robust truth values to moral utterances (Cognitivist) while regarding moral judgements as reports of the speaker's preferences (Anti-realist). On this dimension also, Realist positions are subdivided into Naturalist and Non-naturalist variants, while the Anti-realism group contains within it a sub-group of Relativist theories.

2.3 Normative Freedom

How epistemically tolerant is the meta-ethical theory to competing normative ethical systems? Does the meta-ethical theory allow in-principle for one and only one epistemically correct normative framework or does it allow epistemic legitimacy to more than one set of normative judgements? This aspect of normative tolerance is displayed on the Monism–Pluralism dimension.

Note that this question of tolerance is not a question about the standpoint of a typical moral agent engaging in normative discourse. It is not a question about how many normative systems a moral agent subscribing to that meta-ethical view recognizes as genuine competitors. It is a question about the tolerance level of the proponent of that meta-ethical view qua meta-ethicist. One way to imagine the Monism–Pluralism dimension is to consider the special case of a world in which only ideal moral agents existed. (The properties of an 'ideal' moral agent are specified by the meta-ethical theory in question.) In this world, consider how many normative theories would be accepted by moral agents as normatively correct. Meta-ethical views that entail that only one normative theory is correct are, according to this characterization, Monist. Those that entail more than one are regarded here as Pluralist.

To illustrate this way of classifying meta-ethical views, consider Intuitionism. As a group, Intuitionists argue for a variety of competing normative systems. Which normative system a particular Intuitionist proposes depends on how that particular Intuitionist thinks they sense non-natural moral properties. However, even given this plurality of competing systems, Intuitionists agree that there is only one normatively correct system of values and obligations. It is in this sense that I am categorizing them as meta-ethical Monists.

Now contrast Intuitionism with Prescriptivism. Like Intuitionists, Prescriptivists as a group also recognize a variety of competing normative systems. For a Prescriptivist, however, in a world consisting entirely of ideal moral agents, there would remain a multiplicity of normative judgements as moral agents will differ in the prescriptions that they would want to universalize. For a Prescriptivist, 'Shut all doors' is just as epistemically legitimate a normative position as 'Keep all doors open'. Prescriptivism, in this sense, is Pluralist.

This categorization splits the Relativist group into those variants that have a single moral adjudicator and those that have a multiplicity of adjudicators. Surveying this dimension tells a richer story compared with just looking at the Cognitivism–Non-cognitivism dimension or the simplistic Objectivism–Subjectivism dichotomy.

There is some ambiguity in deciding where to place Existentialism on this dimension. Seeing Existentialism as promoting a single overriding normative principle—that of 'authenticity'—leads to placing Existentialism in the Monism camp. Existentialism's liberalism in allowing for a multiplicity of 'authentic' ethical commitments, on the other hand, appears to place it in the Pluralist camp. Here, I will draw a parallel between Existentialism and naturalistic Utilitarianism, with its single overriding principle of impartiality, and put Existentialism in the Monist camp.

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