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meta-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 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
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
According to Richard Garner and Bernard Rosen,
there are three kinds of meta-ethical problems, or three general
- What is the meaning of moral terms or judgments?
- What is the nature of moral judgments?
- 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."
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.
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
- Most forms of cognitivism hold that there are some such
propositions which are true, as opposed to error theory.
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
- Subjectivist theories
hold that moral statements are made true or false by the attitudes
and/or conventions of people. Subjectivism is one form of moral
- 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
- 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
- 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
(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
- 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
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.
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
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.
These theories attempt to answer the second of the above
questions: "What is the nature of moral judgments?"
- Amongst those who believe there to be some standard(s) of
morality (as opposed to moral nihilists), 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.
- Value monism is the common form of
universalism which holds that all goods are commensurable on a single value scale.
- 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
- 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
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
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 such as universal prescriptivism
(which is semantically non-cognitive but substantially
There are theories which attempt to answer questions like "How
may moral judgments be supported or defended?" or "Why should I be
If one presupposes a cognitivist interpretation of moral
sentences, morality is justified by the moralist's knowledge of
moral facts, and the theories to justify moral judgements are
- Most moral epistemologies, of course, posit that moral
knowledge is somehow possible, as opposed to moral
- 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
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
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
- Discourse ethics holds, moral
judgements are justified by discussing about how to justify moral
judgements, because once you have started engaging in the
discourse, you have already accepted a simple set of moral rules
which are necessary to make the discourse go ahead.
- 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
- 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
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