Meta-ethics

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In philosophy, meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally recognized by philosophers, the others being ethical theory and applied ethics. Ethical theory and applied ethics make up normative ethics. Meta-ethics has received considerable attention from academic philosophers in the last few decades.

While normative ethics addresses such questions as "What should one do?", thus endorsing some ethical evaluations and rejecting others, meta-ethics addresses questions such as "What is goodness?" and "How can we tell what is good from what is bad?", seeking to understand the nature of ethical properties and evaluations.

Some theorists argue that a metaphysical account of morality is necessary for the proper evaluation of actual moral theories and for making practical moral decisions; others reason from opposite premises and suggest that we must impart ideas of moral intuition onto proper action before we can give a proper account of morality's metaphysics.

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Meta-ethical questions

According to Richard Garner and Bernard Rosen,[1] there are three kinds of meta-ethical problems, or three general questions:

A question of the first type might be, "What do the words 'good', 'bad', 'right' and 'wrong' mean?" (see value theory). The second category includes questions of whether moral judgments are universal or relative, of one kind or many kinds, etc. Questions of the third kind ask, for example, how we can know if something is right or wrong, if at all. Garner and Rosen say that answers to the three basic questions "are not unrelated, and sometimes an answer to one will strongly suggest, or perhaps even entail, an answer to another."[1]

A meta-ethical theory, unlike a normative ethical theory, does not attempt to evaluate specific choices as being better, worse, good, bad, or evil; although it may have profound implications as to the validity and meaning of normative ethical claims. An answer to any of the three example questions above would not itself be a normative ethical statement.

Semantic theories

These theories primarily put forward a position on the first of the three questions above, "What is the meaning of moral terms or judgments?" They may however imply or even entail answers to the other two questions as well.

  • Cognitivist theories hold that evaluative moral sentences express propositions (that is, they are "truth apt" or "truth bearers", capable of being true or false), as opposed to non-cognitivism.
    • Most forms of cognitivism hold that some such propositions are true, as opposed to error theory.
      • Moral realism (in the robust sense; see moral universalism for the minimalist sense) holds that such propositions are about robust or mind-independent facts, that is, not facts about any person or group's subjective opinion, but about objective features of the world. Meta-ethical theories are commonly categorized as either a form of realism or as one of three forms of "anti-realism" regarding moral facts: ethical subjectivism, error theory, or non-cognitivism. Realism comes in two main varieties:
      • Ethical subjectivism is one form of moral anti-realism. It holds that moral statements are made true or false by the attitudes and/or conventions of people; either those of each society, those of each individual, or those of some particular individual. Most forms of ethical subjectivism are relativist, but there are notable forms which are universalist:
        • Ideal observer theory holds that what is right is determined by the attitudes that a hypothetical ideal observer would have. An ideal observer is usually characterized as a being who is perfectly rational, imaginative, and informed, among other things. Though a subjectivist theory due to its reference to a particular (albeit hypothetical) subject, Ideal Observer Theory still purports to provide universal answers to moral questions.
        • Divine command theory holds that for a thing to be right is for a unique being, God, to approve of it, and that what is right for non-God beings is obedience to the divine will. This view was criticized by Plato in the Euthyphro (see the Euthyphro problem) but retains some modern defenders (Robert Adams, Philip Quinn, and others). Like Ideal Observer Theory, Divine Command Theory purports to be universalist despite its subjectivism.
    • Error theory, another form of moral anti-realism, holds that although ethical claims do express propositions, all such propositions are false. Thus both the statement "Murder is bad" and the statement "Murder is good" are false, according to an error theory. J. L. Mackie is probably the best-known proponent of this view. Since error theory denies that there are moral truths, error theory entails moral nihilism and thus moral skepticism; however, neither moral nihilism nor moral skepticism conversely entail error theory.
  • Non-cognitivist theories hold that ethical sentences are neither true nor false because they do not express genuine propositions. Non-cognitivism is another form of moral anti-realism. Most forms of non-cognitivism are also forms of expressivism, however some such as Mark Timmons and Terrence Horgan distinguish the two and allow the possibility of cognitivist forms of expressivism.
    • Emotivism, defended by A.J. Ayer and C.L. Stevenson, holds that ethical sentences serve merely to express emotions. So "Killing is wrong" means something like "Boo on killing!"
    • Quasi-realism, defended by Simon Blackburn, holds that ethical statements behave linguistically like factual claims and can be appropriately called "true" or "false", even though there are no ethical facts for them to correspond to. Projectivism and moral fictionalism are related theories.
    • Universal prescriptivism, defended by R.M. Hare, holds that moral statements function like universalized imperative sentences. So "Killing is wrong" means something like "Don't kill!" Hare's version of prescriptivism requires that moral prescriptions be universalizable, and hence actually have objective values, in spite of failing to be indicative statements with truth-values per se.

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