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Meta-ethics

[met-uh-eth-iks, met-uh-eth-]
In philosophy, meta-ethics (sometimes called "analytic ethics") is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, and ethical 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 question such "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, however others make the (reverse) claim that only by importing ideas of moral intuition on how to act can we arrive at an accurate account of the metaphysics of morals.

Meta-ethical questions

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

  1. What is the meaning of moral terms or judgments?
  2. What is the nature of moral judgments?
  3. How may moral judgments be supported or defended?

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."

Meta-ethical theories

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.
    • Objectivist theories hold 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 -- as opposed to subjectivism. Objectivist theories are generally all universalist, that is, they hold that the same things are right and wrong for all people everywhere; however, there are non-objectivist, even non-cognitivist theories which are also universalist.
      • Moral realism holds that there are objective moral propositions which are actually true. Meta-ethical theories are commonly categorized as either a form of realism or as one of three forms of "anti-realism": error theory, ethical subjectivism, or non-cognitivism. Realism comes in two main varieties:
      • Error theory, one form of moral anti-realism, holds that although ethical claims do express propositions about objective facts, all such claims 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.
    • Subjectivist theories hold that moral statements are made true or false by the attitudes and/or conventions of people. Subjectivism is another form of moral anti-realism.
      • Individualist ethical subjectivism holds that there are as many distinct scales of good and evil as there are subjects in the world. This view was put forward by Protagoras.
      • Moral relativism (c.f. cultural relativism) holds that for a thing to be morally right is for it to be approved of by society; this leads to the conclusion that different things are right for people in different societies and different periods in history. Though long out of favor among academic philosophers, especially of the analytic tradition, this view has been popular among anthropologists, such as Ruth Benedict, and to some extent in continental philosophy as well.
      • 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.
  • 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.
    • 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.

Centralism and non-centralism

Yet another way of categorizing meta-ethical theories is to distinguish between centralist and non-centralist theories. The debate between centralism and non-centralism revolves around the relationship between the so-called "thin" and "thick" concepts of morality. Thin moral concepts are those such as good, bad, right, and wrong; thick moral concepts are those such as courageous, inequitable, just, or dishonest. While both sides agree that the thin concepts are more general and the thick more specific, centralists hold that the thin concepts are antecedent to the thick ones and that the latter are therefore dependent on the former. That is, centralists argue that one must understand words like "right" and "ought" before understanding words like "just" and "unkind." Non-centralism rejects this view, holding that thin and thick concepts are on par with one another and even that the thick concepts are a sufficient starting point for understanding the thin ones. Non-centralism has been of particular importance to ethical naturalists in the late 20th and early 21st centuries as part of their argument that normativity is a non-excisable aspect of language and that there is no way of analyzing thick moral concepts into a purely descriptive element attached to a thin moral evaluation, thus undermining any fundamental division between facts and norms. Allan Gibbard, R.M. Hare, and Simon Blackburn have argued in favor of the fact/norm distinction, meanwhile, with Gibbard going so far as to argue that even if conventional English has only mixed normative terms (that is, terms that are neither purely descriptive nor purely normative), we could develop a nominally English metalanguage that still allowed us to maintain the division between factual descriptions and normative evaluations.

Substantial theories

There are a variety of questions regarding the nature of moral judgements, and theories which attempt to answer the second of the above questions, "What is the nature of moral judgments?", can be categorized in a number of different ways.

  • Amongst those who believe there to be some standard(s) of morality, there are two divisions: universalists, who hold that the same moral facts or principles apply to everyone everywhere; and relativists, who hold that different moral facts or principles apply to different people or societies.
    • Moral universalism (or universal morality) is the meta-ethical position that some system of ethics, or a universal ethic, applies universally, that is to all people regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexuality, or other distinguishing feature. The source or justification of this system may be thought to be, for instance, human nature, shared vulnerability to suffering, the demands of universal reason, what is common among existing moral codes, or the common mandates of religion (although it can be argued that the latter is not in fact moral universalism because it may distinguish between Gods and mortals). It is the opposing position to various forms of moral relativism. Universalist theories are generally forms of moral realism, though exceptions exists, such as the subjectivist ideal observer and divine command theories, and the non-cognitivist universal prescriptivism of R.M. Hare.
      • Value monism is the common form of univeralism which holds that all goods are commensurable on a single value scale; in short, that there is one true, or at least one highest, good.
        • Moral absolutism is the view that some acts are absolutely prohibited or required, regardless of context or other competing moral concerns, e.g. Immanuel Kant once famously declared that lying is always wrong, even if the alternative is telling a murderer the location of his next victim.
        • By contrast, numerous normative ethical theories, including utilitarianism, proportionalism, and situational ethics, hold that while there is a single value scale, any moral principle may sometimes be violated in favor of other moral concerns; the placement of any given act on the value scale varying by context.
      • Value pluralism contends that there are two or more genuine scales of value, knowable as such, yet incommensurable, so that any prioritization of these values is either non-cognitive or subjective. A value pluralist might, for example, contend that both a life as a nun and a life as a mother realize genuine values (in a universalist sense), yet they are incompatible (nuns may not have children) and there is no purely rational measure of which is preferable. A notable proponent of this view is Isaiah Berlin.
    • Meta-ethical relativists maintain that all moral judgments have their origins either in societal or in individual standards, and that no single objective standard exists by which one can assess the truth of a moral proposition. Meta-ethical relativists, in general, believe that the descriptive properties of terms such as "good", "bad", "right", and "wrong" do not stand subject to universal truth conditions, but only to societal convention and personal preference. Given the same set of verifiable facts, some societies or individuals will have a fundamental disagreement about what one ought to do based on societal or individual norms, and one cannot adjudicate these using some independent standard of evaluation. The latter standard will always be societal or personal and not universal, unlike, for example, the scientific standards for assessing temperature or for determining mathematical truths. Some philosophers maintain that moral relativism entails non-cognitivism. Most relativist theories are forms of moral subjectivism, though not all subjectivist theories are relativistic.
  • Moral nihilism, also known as ethical nihilism, is the meta-ethical view that nothing is morally preferable to anything else. For example, a moral nihilist would say that killing someone, for whatever reason, is neither morally right nor morally wrong. Moral nihilism must be distinguished from moral relativism which does allow for moral statements to be true or false in a non-objective sense, but does not assign any static truth-values to moral statements. Insofar as only true statements can be known, moral nihilists are moral skeptics. Most forms of moral nihilism are non-cognitivist and vice versa, though there are notable exceptions in both directions such as error theory (semantically objective but substantially nihilistic) and universal prescriptivism (semantically non-cognitive but substantially universal).

Epistemological theories

Theories which attempt to answer the third of the above questions, "How may moral judgments be supported or defended?", are epistemological theories. That is to say that they are questions about our knowledge of moral facts; whether such a thing is possible, and if so, how. As such, theories of this sort may be categorized much as any other epistemological theories would be.

  • Most moral epistemologies, of course, posit that moral knowledge is somehow possible, as opposed to moral skepticism.
    • Amongst them, there are those which hold that moral knowledge is gained inferentially on the basis of some sort of non-moral epistemic process, as opposed to ethical intuitionism.
      • Empiricism is the doctrine that knowledge is gained primarily through observation and experience. Meta-ethical theories which imply an empirical epistemology include ethical naturalism, which holds moral facts to be reducible to non-moral facts and thus knowable in the same ways; and most common forms of ethical subjectivism, which hold that moral facts reduce to facts about cultural conventions and thus are knowable by observation of those conventions. There are exceptions within subjectivism however, such as ideal observer theory which implies that moral facts may be known through a rational process, and individualist ethical subjectivism which holds that moral facts are merely personal opinions and so may be known only through introspection.
      • Moral rationalism, also called ethical rationalism, is the view according to which moral truths (or at least general moral principles) are knowable a priori, by reason alone. Some prominent figures in the history of philosophy who have defended moral rationalism are Plato and Immanuel Kant. Perhaps the most prominent figure in the history of philosophy who has rejected moral rationalism is David Hume. Recent philosophers who defended moral rationalism include Richard Hare, Christine Korsgaard, Alan Gewirth, and Michael Smith (1994). A moral rationalist may adhere to any number of different semantic theories as well; moral realism is compatible with rationalism, and the subjectivist ideal observer theory and noncognitivist universal prescriptivism both entail it.
    • Ethical intuitionism, on the other hand, is the view according to which some moral truths can be known without inference. That is, the view is at its core a foundationalism about moral beliefs. Of course, such an epistemological view implies that there are moral beliefs with propositional contents; so it implies cognitivism. Ethical intuitionism commonly suggests moral realism, the view that there are objective facts of morality, and more specifically ethical non-naturalism, the view that these evaluative facts cannot be reduced to natural fact. However, neither moral realism nor ethical non-naturalism are essential to the view; most ethical intuitionists simply happen to hold those views as well. Ethical intuitionism comes in both a "rationalist" variety, and a more "empiricist" variety known as moral sense theory.
  • Moral skepticism is the class of meta-ethical theories all members of which entail that no one has any moral knowledge. Many moral skeptics also make the stronger, modal, claim that moral knowledge is impossible. Forms of moral skepticism include, but are not limited to, error theory and most but not all forms of non-cognitivism.

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