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A Taxonomy of Meta-ethical Theories

3. Meta-ethical Theory Taxonomy

The table below classifies the dominant theories in the field of meta-ethics, categorizing each of them along three dimensions. The Cognitivism–Non-cognitivism dimension classifies theories according to how much they take moral utterances to be descriptive and propositional in character. The Realism–Anti-realism dimension categorizes theories on the extent to which they take ethics to be about a mind-independent reality. The Monism–Pluralism dimension gauges how tolerant each theory is to competing normative frameworks.

Cognitivism Semi‑cognitivism Non‑cognitivism

Linguistic Analysis

Naturalism Non‑naturalism Relativism
Utilitarianism Intuitionism Cultural Relativism Constructivism Sophisticated Emotivism Radical Emotivism
Neo-Aristotelianism Rationalism Subjectivism Existentialism Projectivism Prescriptivism
Ideal Observer Theory Revolutionary Fictionalism Norm-expressivism
Divine Command Theory Error Theory Plan-expressivism

Hermeneutic Fictionalism

Realism Quasi‑realism Anti‑realism

Metaphysical Commitments

Naturalism Non‑naturalism Relativism
Utilitarianism Intuitionism Sophisticated Emotivism Cultural Relativism Radical Emotivism
Neo-Aristotelianism Rationalism Projectivism Subjectivism Prescriptivism
Norm-expressivism Ideal Observer Theory Constructivism
Plan-expressivism Divine Command Theory Existentialism
Hermeneutic Fictionalism
Revolutionary Fictionalism

Error Theory

Monism Pluralism

Normative Freedom

Utilitarianism Radical Emotivism Prescriptivism
Rationalism Sophisticated Emotivism Cultural Relativism
Neo-Aristotelianism Projectivism Subjectivism
Constructivism Norm-expressivism Existentialism
Existentialism Plan-expressivism Hermeneutic Fictionalism
Ideal Observer Theory Revolutionary Fictionalism

Divine Command Theory

Error Theory

Below is a short description of each of the meta-ethical theories classified in the above typology.

Utilitarianism:
A type of Naturalism that equates morality with facts about what promotes the welfare or interests of sentient creatures. (J. S. Mill)
Neo-Aristotelianism:
A type of Naturalism that grounds ethics in facts about human nature and evaluates living things as specimens of their kind. (G. E. M. Anscombe, P. Foot, P. T. Geach)
Intuitionism:
A form of Non-naturalism that posits that moral qualities are not natural qualities and that they are perceived directly by a moral sense. (M. Huemer, G. W. Leibniz, H. J. McCloskey, G. E. Moore, W. D. Ross, H. Sidgwick)
Rationalism:
A form of Non-naturalism that postulates that universalized moral rules can be deduced by reason alone as synthetic a priori principles. (M. Huemer, I. Kant, C. Korsgaard)
Cultural Relativism:
A type of Relativism in which moral judgements are understood as the speaker's report of their social group's accepted norms of behaviour. (F. Boas, G. Harman, E. Westermarck, D. B. Wong)
Subjectivism:
A type of Relativism in which moral judgements are understood as the speaker's report of their psychological state of approving or preferring. (D. Hume, Protagoras)
Ideal Observer Theory:
A type of Relativism in which the standard for morality is determined by what is preferred by an impartial ideal observer with perfect knowledge and without cultural bias. (R. B. Brandt, R. Firth, D. Hume)
Divine Command Theory:
A type of Relativism in which what is good is what God approves and what is right is what God commands. (R. M. Adams, P. Copan, P. Quinn)
Existentialism:
The view that ethics is fundamentally grounded in the human freedom to choose and the imperative to act authentically. (A. Camus, S. Kierkegaard, J-P. Sartre)
Constructivism:
The view that moral principles are determined through an idealized process of deliberation and agreement by rational agents. (D. Copp, T. Hobbes, J. Rawls, T. M. Scanlon)
Radical Emotivism:
The view that moral utterances are simply exhortations of emotions, attitudes or preferences with no descriptive content. (A. J. Ayer, B. Russell)
Sophisticated Emotivism:
The view that moral utterances are centrally expressions of attitudes and preferences while also peripherally describing the object of evaluation in some way. (D. H. Monro, C. L. Stevenson)
Projectivism:
The view that moral utterances are projections of approval or disapproval as a property onto an event or object. (S. Blackburn)
Norm-expressivism:
The view that normative judgments express the acceptance of systems of rules dividing actions under naturalistic descriptions into those that are forbidden, permitted and required. (A. Gibbard)
Plan-expressivism:
The view that normative judgments express the acceptance of plans to act in a particular way, depending on the naturalistic circumstances of the speaker. (A. Gibbard)
Prescriptivism:
The view that moral judgments are universal imperatives to act for any agent in a similar circumstance to the one judged. (R. Carnap, R. M. Hare)
Hermeneutic Fictionalism:
The view that moral agents typically pretend to ascribe mind-independent moral properties to objects and events. (M. E. Kalderon, J. Woodbridge, S. Yablo)
Revolutionary Fictionalism:
The view that moral language should be reformed to continue the fiction in which moral agents falsely ascribe mind-independent moral properties to objects and events. (R. Joyce)
Error Theory:
The view that moral agents falsely ascribe mind-independent moral properties to objects and events. (I. Hinckfuss, J. L. Mackie)

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