Meta-ethics: An Introduction

1. What Is Meta-ethics?

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2015. Meta-ethics: An Introduction, URL = <>.

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Meta-ethics is a major field of enquiry in philosophy. The 'meta' in 'meta-ethics' signifies 'above'. Meta-ethics is the attempt to answer questions about ethics. Philosophers working in this area are not so much concerned with what people or acts in particular are ethical. These questions are the domain of an allied field of enquiry known as 'normative ethics'.

One way to get a feel for what meta-ethics is about is to ask yourself five key questions about morality: Where? What? Why? When? How? Each of these questions uncovers important aspects of meta-ethical enquiry. Let us look at each of these questions in turn.

Where do ethics come from? Does it originate in a divine plan for our lives or is goodness and badness part of the fabric of the universe? Or is it our efforts at negotiating mutually beneficial social relationships?

What do moral terms refer to when we make moral pronouncements? Are we simply referring to our own subjective preferences or to those of our group? Or are we appealing to something outside ourselves, such as God's commands or a realm of mind-independent moral properties?

Why do we engage in moral discourse? Are we trying to convince others of the truth of certain moral facts; to change their beliefs? Or is there something more, such as wanting to change their attitude to something or to come to some kind of mutual agreement on how to act?

When are we engaging in moral deliberation and when are we not? Is a moral preference substantively different from a culinary or an aesthetic preference? Is it different from a judgment of prudence?

How do we justify our moral judgments? How is it that we know we are right? Do we apprehend moral truths directly or only indirectly through reasoning? Or are we mistaken in thinking that there are moral facts that can be known?

Since the time of the ancient Greeks, moral philosophers have been grappling with these questions. A meta-ethical theory worth our attention attempts to answer each of these questions in a coherent and convincing way. Over the millennia, philosophical traditions have developed around the kinds of answers given. Answers have either gravitated towards either a Cognitivist or a Non-Cognitivist analysis of moral language. In addition, answers have been seen as either committing to a Realist or an Anti-realist view of moral properties. These divergent traditions are made clearer by looking at how each tradition poses solutions in three key areas of meta-ethical analysis. These three areas are:

Linguistic analysis: In this area of analysis, the meta-ethical theory gives an account of the meanings of ethical terms, such as 'good', 'right' and 'justice'. Cognitivist theories give more weight to the descriptive content of ethical utterances, treating them much like ordinary factual propositions. On this kind of theory, 'John is bad' expresses a fact in the same way as 'John is mad' expresses a true proposition. Non-cognitivist theories, on the other hand, lend more weight to the emotive meaning of moral utterances. On these kinds of theory, 'John is bad' expresses a con-attitude or a rejection of John.

Extra-linguistic analysis: In this area, the theory tells a story about the psychological and social functions of ethics. Realist theories explain ethics in terms of some realm that is independent of individual and group preferences. Moral properties, such as 'good', may equate to natural properties, such as pleasure, or may relate to a non-natural realm. Anti-realist theories, on the other hand, view ethics as being the manifestation of the preferences of human beings or some idealized entity. On these kinds of theory, ethical systems serve human ends in guiding individual choices or in providing the social glue that binds us together.

Epistemological analysis: Here, the theory explores how we come to know which of our moral judgements are correct and which are mistaken. Cognitivist theories give a method or decision procedure for deciding the truth or falsity of moral claims. Conversely, non-cognitivist theories claim that there is no 'knowing' to be had as moral utterances do not have a truth value in the ordinary sense. The truth of 'John is bad', for the cognitivist, can be determined by reason alone or empirically. For the non-cognitivist, 'John is bad' is not an expression of a belief.

The table in the next section provides a concise classification of the major meta-ethical theories proposed throughout history. The table outlines the core ideas developed within each, the specific meta-ethical problems it deals with relatively easily and the main objections levelled against it by its key detractors. Finally, the table lists some of the most well-articulated advocates for each position.

Copyright © 2015

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