A Taxonomy of Meta-ethical Theories

1. Introduction

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2015. A Taxonomy of Meta-ethical Theories, URL = <>.

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The aim with this typology is to present a classification of meta-ethical theories. Such a classification helps students new to philosophy to see at a glance the range of views in the field. It also assists professional philosophers and others interested in the field to explore the relationships between theories and the nuances of each view.

Such a classification is notoriously difficult and there is no widespread agreement amongst philosophers how this is to be achieved. This difficulty largely arises because each meta-ethical theory answers questions in multiple areas of enquiry. Firstly, many theories seek to provide a linguistic analysis of the ethical terms used in ordinary discourse. They endeavour to provide an account of the meanings of ethical words such as 'good' and 'right'. Secondly, such theories try to give some account of the psychological and social functions of ethics and of moral discourse. Thirdly, these theories strive to give an epistemological account of moral judgements: how we come to know moral truths and the logical relationships between moral judgements and natural descriptions of the world and of us. The problem of classification is made all the more difficult as some leading proponents of particular theories do not address all of these questions or answer them in unclear and ambiguous ways.

I have found it most useful to classify all of the major meta-ethical theories along three dimensions. Along the Cognitivism–Non-cognitivism dimension are classified theories according to whether they regard moral utterances as being truth-apt in the same way that ordinary descriptive sentences bear truth or falsity. On the Realism–Anti-realism dimension is shown the extent to which meta-ethical theories take morality to be about a mind-independent realm. The third categorization along the Monism–Pluralism scale places meta-ethical theories according to how tolerant they are of competing normative frameworks.

Many moral philosophers divide meta-ethical theories into Objectivist and Subjectivist types and then conflate this classification with either the Cognitivism–Non-cognitivism divide or the Realism–Anti-realism divide. Classifying theories this way misses an important characteristic and can be misleading. Subjectivism (in the narrow sense of the view that equates moral judgements with psychological reports of mental states) is a case in point. Without dispute, Subjectivism is a Cognitivist meta-ethic. However, classifying it under Objectivism for this reason is both confusing and misleading.

Consider also Ideal Observer and Divine Command Theories. Both these theories ascribe moral judgments to a single mind with preferences and so may be considered Subjectivist (in the sense of 'partial'). On the other hand, the preferences of this being are held to be epistemically privileged and obligatory for all moral agents and so may be considered Objectivist (in the sense of being 'universalist').

Copyright © 2015

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