Intro to Meta Ethics

Meta-ethics is a branch of Philosophy which asks the question of what goodness is, which opens up a domain of philosophical investigation ‘above’ standard ethics (hence ‘meta-ethics’) in which competing meta-ethical theories each provide argument for what they claim good actually is.

There are two main aspects to meta-ethics:

1. Linguistic: What is the meaning of ethical language?

Cognitivism – ethical language expresses beliefs about reality which can therefore be true or false.

Non-cognitivism – ethical language expresses some non-cognition like an emotion, does not attempt to describe reality and therefore cannot be true or false.

2. Metaphysical: What is the actual nature of morality in reality?

Realism: The view that moral properties exist in reality.

Anti-realism: The view that moral properties do not exist in reality.

Normative ethics are ethical theories which attempt to devise a system by which we can distinguish right from wrong, e.g Utilitarianism, Kant’s ethics, Natural law, Situation Ethics, etc.

Normative ethical theories all have a Meta-ethical core from which they proceed. For example, utilitarianism claims that goodness = happiness. That is a meta-ethical view about what goodness is. Once Utilitarianism has established that, it goes on to create the hedonic calculus and so on, making a system by which we can decide how we ought to act, which is the normative part of theory.

Divine command theory

The Euthyphro dilemma


Ethical Naturalism

This is the view that goodness is something real in the natural world – typically a natural property. The natural world is the physical world. A natural property is a trait or feature that a natural thing has. For example, temperature would be a natural property.

Bentham’s Utilitarian naturalism

Bentham’s Utilitarianism claims that goodness = pleasure. Pleasure is a natural property (at least if you don’t believe in a non-natural soul) of natural creatures.  Meta-ethically, Utilitarianism is therefore a form of naturalism, moral realism and cognitivism.

“Nature has placed us under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do … a man may pretend to abjure their empire: but in reality he will remain subject to it all the while”.

Bentham’s argument is that it is our human nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain, so that’s all there is for morality to be about. We just are the kind of thing which cannot help but find pleasure good and pain bad. Bentham claims we could try to pretend otherwise but cannot escape this nature. As this is a fact of our nature, it is therefore a fact that goodness = pleasure.

The linguistic claims of naturalism are straightforwardly that ethical language is cognitive as it functions no differently to expression of any other type of belief about reality. To describe the color of the table, I say ‘the table is brown’. This is a sentence expressing a belief about reality. The ethical language ‘stealing from that bank is good’ is no different for the naturalist. It is a sentence and a proposition about reality which will be either true or false depending on the sense in which that particular action of stealing involves whatever natural property the naturalist claims to be good.

Hume’s law criticises naturalism. Hume said philosophers talk about the way things are and then jump with no apparent justification to a claim about the way things ought to be.

There are various ways of phrasing Hume’s argument:

    • You can’t get an ought from an is.
    • You cannot infer values from fact.
    • Just because something is a certain way, that doesn’t tell us anything about how it ought to be.
    • Is-statements do not entail ought-statements. 

The consequence of Hume’s argument is that, for any moral proposition, you cannot give a factual justification for believing it. Take the example of “it is wrong to kill people” and try to figure out what the factual justification is for it. Why is it factually wrong to kill people?

You could certainly point out various factual consequences of killing people that we often take to be wrong, such as that it harms people or violates their preferences. It is indeed a fact killing people can involve such things. However, why is it a fact that it’s wrong to harm people? Why is it a fact that it’s wrong to violate people’s preferences?

Whatever answer someone presents as a fact (is-statement) from which they have inferred their values (ought-statements), it seems you can always question what their reason is for that inference. It looks like we cannot infer values from facts.

Hume argues that you could be aware of all the facts about a situation, yet if you then pass a moral judgement, that cannot have come from ‘the understanding’ nor be ‘the work of judgement’ but instead comes from ‘the heart’ and is ‘not a speculative proposition’ but is an ‘active feeling or sentiment’. This looks like an argument against realism but also against cognitivism and for non-cognitivism, specifically emotivism.

Bentham does think that certain is-statements entail ought-statements but and gives an argument for that. He do not simply ‘leap’ from is to ought without justification. Bentham’s justification that we ‘ought’ to do whatever maximises pleasure is that it ‘is’ our nature to find pleasure Good.

However, Hume’s law arguably shows that Bentham is just making the assumption that it being our nature to find happiness good makes it good. That is trying to go from a fact about our nature, to a value about what is good. It being our nature is to find pleasure good only means that pleasure is good. It doesn’t mean that pleasure is good. That is a different kind of statement, not entailed nor justified by the first.

The open question argument

This is Moore’s main argument against naturalism. He argues that if naturalism were true, the result would be illogical.

IF: goodness = pleasure

THEN: (goodness = pleasure) = (pleasure = pleasure)

BUT: goodness = pleasure is informative, telling us about the world

YET: pleasure = pleasure is not informative (tautology), telling us nothing.

Therefore, goodness cannot = pleasure, or any other natural property. Therefore, naturalism is false.

A question is closed if it shows ignorance of the meanings of the terms involved to ask. A question is open if it does not display ignorance of those meanings to ask it. Since ‘Goodness = X natural property’ for a naturalist would be synthetic, one could be acquainted with the subject (goodness) but not the predicate (X natural property) and therefore would not necessarily be displaying ignorance of the terms involved to ask the question. Therefore, it will always be an open question whether goodness really is X natural property as we can always meaningfully and intelligibly ask the question ‘is goodness really X natural property?’

Arguably Moore can only prove that our linguistic concepts of goodness and pleasure are distinct concepts that cannot be identical. That doesn’t tell us anything about the actual metaphysical status of goodness in reality. Mackie made this kind of argument, claiming that in Moore’s time philosophers were too optimistic in thinking that linguistic analysis could tell us metaphysical truths.

Moore’s naturalistic fallacy

Moore was influenced by Hume and went on to argue that goodness can’t be equated with any natural property (like happiness) as any attempt to do so commits the naturalistic fallacy. Moore claimed that we can’t define goodness. We can’t say what goodness is. It is like the color yellow – you can’t describe or define yellow, you just experience it and can only point to yellow things. What is yellow? What does it look like? Just yellow… Moore says the same is true for goodness. Therefore, goodness can’t be a naturalistic thing as naturalistic things can all be defined. So, we experience goodness, which Moore clams is due to a faculty of intuition.

Moore’s Intuitionism

Moore holds that when we observe or reflect on a moral situation, such as someone stealing, our intuition gives us the proposition ‘stealing is wrong’, depending on the consequences. This isn’t reducing morality to some subjective feeling however. Just as all humans have no choice but to perceive the color yellow when looking at a yellow thing, Moore thinks humans have no choice but to apprehend the truth or falsity of a moral proposition when observing or reflecting on the relevant moral situation. He thinks this occurs because we apprehend ‘non-natural properties’. Intuitionism is cognitivist as Moore thinks that ethical language expresses a belief about the non-natural reality, which is based on an intuition.

Moore is criticised for having an indulgent metaphysics of non-natural properties existing in a supersensible realm being somehow apprehended by a mysterious faculty of intuition. How could he possibly prove any of this?

Moore responds by making an analogy between his non-natural notion of ‘goodness’ and numbers, saying that neither ‘exist’ but do have ‘being’ in some way. The idea here is that numbers do not seem to be natural objects like trees or atoms. However, numbers do seem to have something to do with reality. Therefore, there must be a non-natural aspect or level to reality where numbers are and Moore says that’s where goodness is also. Moore says there is no supersensible reality. By ‘intuitive’ he only meant not inferred from other kinds of knowledge like logical or natural truths.

Moral disagreement. Not everyone has the same intuition about what is ethically good or bad. How can Moore explain moral disagreement if everyone has intuitive access to objectively true moral propositions?

Moore firstly argued that people often fail to be as clear as possible in their ethical propositions, which he thinks explains much of the moral disagreement.

Moore secondly argued that intuitions can be made at different levels of abstraction and furthermore Moore was a consequentialist, which means that there could be different intuitions about the same action in different situations. So the process of figuring out ethical truth required fitting your intuited moral propositions together into a coherent whole. If we could come together and discuss the situations our different intuitions apply to, he thinks we would agree.

Pritchard, an intuitionist, responds that moral disagreement occurs because some are less morally developed than others.

But consider The Pope, the Dali lama, and Peter singer. All are very morally developed people, yet all differ radically in their conception of ethics.

Mackie has the view that people’s intuitions about ethics do express cognitive truth claims, but that their ethical views are only true or false relative to an individual or culture, so true ‘for them’. Mackie argues that relativism is a better explanation of moral disagreement between different cultures than Intuitionism. People have moral intuitions, but they come from their culture or individual mind, they are not perceptions of a non-natural reality. Freud’s views on the conscience would also support this, since he thought our moral views were conditioned into our super-ego by our society.

There are a set of core moral principles similar in all societies however, such as prohibitions on stealing and murder. This could suggest there is some absolutist moral truth that humans are somehow apprehending.

Arguably societies have similar views on murder and stealing because a society which allowed such actions would fall apart and cease to exist. So societies have that core similarity because of practical necessity, not because of absolutist objective moral truths.


Ayer agreed with G.E Moore’s naturalistic fallacy argument, that ‘goodness’ could not be identical with any natural property. However, Ayer disregarded Moore’s ‘non-natural’ properties solution as unverifiable. Ayer thinks we are therefore left with the position that there are neither natural nor non-natural moral properties in reality, so anti-realism is true. Ayer’s anti-realism relies on the success of Moore’s arguments against naturalism therefore, however, as his own theory only specifically targets intuitionism.

Ayer accepted the fact-value distinction that Hume’s is-ought gap implied. Ayer also thought the connection between moral judgement and motivation and the connection between motivation and feeling, made it most plausible that emotions were the best candidate for explaining the psychological function of ethical language and its unverifiability. Unlike subjectivism which claims we are describing or reporting our feelings, Ayer thinks we are expressing them when using ethical language.

Boo/hurrah theory. Ayer concluded ethical language was meaningless according to his verificationist theory of meaning, since it can’t be empirically verified nor is it analytically true. Ayer proposed that rather than attempting to describe reality, ethical language really expresses emotion. Saying ‘X is good’ is really akin to hitting ur toe on a chair and saying ‘oww’. The meaning of ‘oww’ is that it expresses – it connects to – the part of your mind that feels pain. That feeling of pain is not a cognitive belief that could be true or false. It’s the same with ethical language says Ayer – it connects to and expresses non-cognitive emotions, not cognitive beliefs. So ‘X is wrong’ is really ‘boo to X’, or ‘X is good’ is really ‘hurrah to X’.

Ayer’s claim is that there is nothing more to ethics than expressing emotion. It follows that there is no objective truth nor falsity in ethics. Different people are not good or bad, they just have different emotional associations. Hitler had a particular emotional association towards Jews. There’s nothing more that can be said, no way to say Hitler was ‘really wrong’, just that one might have a different emotional reaction than him. 

Some bring up this sort of point as a criticism against emotivism since if this was believed by everyone then the world might descend into anarchy and chaos if there are no objective ethical principles. This criticism in a way misses the point of meta-ethics however. Meta-ethics is just trying to determine what rightness and wrongness are. We may not like the result of a particular meta-ethical theory, it may indeed lead to the destruction of the world. But that doesn’t mean it’s incorrect. The science behind nuclear bombs may well end up destroying the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s incorrect. If ethics really is mere expression of emotion, then we can’t disprove that merely by pointing out what would be the consequence of everyone believing that as an argument against its truth.

The issue of non-cognitivism adequately accounting for the way ethical language is used

Subjectivism is the view that ethical language reports or describes subjective feelings. Moore criticised subjectivism as being unable to explain moral disagreement. Two different subjective feelings cannot ‘disagree’ because they are not representations of objective reality. Ayer’s dealing with Moore’s issue of moral disagreement simultaneously serves to defend emotivism from a criticism and provide an argument in its favour. Ayer states that the impossibility of moral dispute follows from his emotivism too which means Moore’s argument from moral disagreement also applies to his theory. Two different emotions cannot be said to disagree. Ayer admits that people do engage in disputes which are ‘ordinarily’ thought of as disputes about value and have what can sound like rational arguments on either side of what seems like a debate. If ethical language were really just an expression of emotion, that should not be possible.

Ayer claims that he can answer Moore’s critique by claiming that “one really never does dispute about questions of value”. Ayer claims that moral disagreements are either genuine disagreements about non-moral facts or not genuine disagreements. Ayer points out that when we disagree with someone morally, we ‘admittedly resort to argument’ to win them over to ‘our way of thinking’, but our arguments do not attempt to show that they have the ‘wrong’ ethical feeling towards a situation which they have ‘correctly apprehended’. Ayer claims that his analysis showing the impossibility of moral disagreement provides support for his claim that ethical language is not fact stating, since only disagreement about facts is possible.

Mackie’s argument against non-cognitivism. Mackie claims that objectivism about values has ‘a firm basis’ in ordinary thought and the meaning of ethical language. While he thought that metaphysically Moore was wrong to think ethical terms intuited some non-natural reality, nonetheless in moral contexts ethical terms ‘are used as if it were the name of a supposed non-natural quality’ (my emphasis).

Mackie regarded emotivism as ‘part of the truth’ as it explains why ethical language is motivating of action, but claims it’s a ‘very natural reaction’ to non-cognitivism to “protest that there is more to ethics than this, something more external to the maker of moral judgements, more authoritative over both him and those of or to whom he speaks, and this reaction is likely to persist. Ethics, we are inclined to believe, is more a matter of knowledge and less a matter of decision than any non-cognitive analysis allows.” Naturalism satisfies this demand. Linguistically, however, naturalism only seems to allow for a purely descriptive and ‘inert’ ethical statements, which Mackie thinks ethical language clearly involves more than, e.g. motivation.

Mackie illustrates his view with the case of a scientist doing research on bacteriological warfare who is in a state of moral perplexity, wondering whether it would be wrong of them to do such research. Mackie claims such a person would ultimately want to ‘arrive at some judgement about this concrete case. While his emotions and prescriptions will be part of the subject of the judgement, no such relation between the scientist and their proposed action will be part of the predicate. What they want to decide is not whether they really want to do the work, whether it will satisfy their emotions, whether they will have a positive attitude towards it in the long run, or whether the action is one they can happily, sincerely and rationally recommend or prescribe in all relevantly similar cases. What they ultimately want to know is whether this action is ‘wrong in itself’. Mackie thinks this is how ethical language is really commonly used.

Mackie concludes that ‘ordinary moral judgements include a claim to objectivity, an assumption that there are objective values’. Ethical language therefore expresses beliefs which are cognitive and can be true or false. However, Mackie thinks that anti-realism is true and thus concludes that all ethical language is false. This is called error theory; the combination of anti-realism and cognitivism.

Hume vs Kant on non/cognitivism

Hume’s meta-ethics was greatly disliked by Kant and motivated Kant to create his own ethical theory. Kant thinks ethics can be based on reason and that we can and should remove emotion as a motivation for moral decision making. However, Hume claims that moral judgements being motivating means they must involve desire, which is an emotion or sentiment. It’s not enough merely to reason that we should do something because why would we care that we should do what we should do unless we had a desire to do what we should do? Hume claims that we just are the sort of being which cannot help but require desire in order to be motivated to do actions, which means Kant’s ideal of the good will is an impossible ideal.

Rational agents can put their emotion aside. The idea that reason and emotion are in conflict goes back to Plato, who saw human reason as aimed higher than the world at intellectual abstract ideas, in conflict with the body which anchored reason in the mere physical world with animalistic feelings. Kant too clearly thinks something like this and suggests that, as rational agents, we can and should try to separate our reason from emotional influence when making moral decisions.

However, Hume claimed that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions”. There are everyday examples which illustrate this. When someone criticises your deeply held personal belief, your mind instantly starts thinking of defences. If it cannot think of anything, it starts getting angry and projecting negative psychological motivations into the critic. This looks like your mind has pre-conceived feelings and the role of reason and rationality is merely to provide ad hoc rationalisations to serve our prejudices. Our mind is more like a lawyer than a scientist. This suggests emotivism is true because the cognitive part of the mind is a slave of the non-cognitive part which means that our ethical language is fundamentally rooted in and expressing non-cognitions. Kant is overly optimistic in claiming that the rational cognitive part of our mind could operate independently of our non-cognitive side when making moral decisions.