Meta-ethics A* grade summary notes


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  • Meta-ethics is the field or study which seeks to answer the question of what goodness is.
  • Normative ethics is about establishing an account of what goodness is and then is mostly concerned with how to guide action accordingly.
  • Meta-ethics however is exclusively focused on what goodness is.
  • There are two aspects to what goodness is:
  • 1: Whether goodness exists in reality or not (moral realism vs moral anti-realism)
  • Moral realism is the view that ‘goodness’ is real – exists in reality.
  • Anti-realism is the view that goodness is not real – it does not exist in reality.
  • 2: What the meaning of the word ‘good’ is (cognitivism vs non-cognitivism)
  • Cognitivism is the view that ethical language expresses beliefs that can be true or false
  • Non-cognitivism is the view that ethical language expresses some non-belief, like an emotion, which cannot be true or false.

Naturalism (realist & cognitivist). 

  • Naturalism is the view that goodness is a natural property – a feature of the physical world.
  • E.g. Utilitarian naturalism like Bentham’s – would claim that goodness = pleasure. Pleasure is a natural feature of natural creatures – e.g. brain chemicals. Therefore, goodness is a natural property.
  • If utilitarian naturalism is correct, it means there are objective right and wrong answers to moral questions. E.g. Hitler was objectively wrong – it’s not a matter of opinion – since his actions factually caused more pain than pleasure. Since goodness = pleasure, an action is right if it maximises pleasure, then Hitler’s actions were wrong.
  • Bentham’s naturalism is cognitivist because, for any ethical statement/language like ‘Hitler was wrong’ – it can be true or false depending on whether Hitler maximised pleasure. When someone states an ethical proposition, they are expressing their belief that it is true or false.
  • This all depends on Bentham’s claim that goodness = pleasure. His argument for this is that it is human nature to find pleasure good.
  • “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure” He goes on to say that we could pretend that we don’t find pleasure good – but we would just be pretending. 

Hume’s criticism of naturalism 

  • Hume’s ‘is-ought’ gap. Hume claims you cannot deductively infer a value from a fact – you can’t get an ought from an is. 
  • Bentham’s argument:
  • P1. It is human nature to find pleasure good (fact – ‘is-statement’).
  • C1. Pleasure is good and we ought to maximise pleasure (value – ‘ought’ statement)
  • Hume’s point is that this is not a valid deduction – this conclusion does not follow – is not justified – by that premise. 
  • The fact that it is human nature to find pleasure good, only means that it is human nature to find pleasure good. It doesn’t mean that pleasure is good and that we thus ought to maximise pleasure. 
  • That simply looks like a different statement and we have no reason to think it is justified or entailed by the premise.
  • G. E. Moore’s ‘naturalistic fallacy’ 
  • A fallacy is a logical error resulting from an assumption or a mistake in reasoning. 
  • Moore was influenced Hume’s is-ought gap argument and developed it into the form of a fallacy called the naturalistic fallacy. Applied to naturalism, it takes this form:
  • It is a fallacy to assume that something being natural means that it is good.
  • Naturalists seem to make that assumption. For example, Bentham argues that because it is human nature for pleasure to be our ultimate desire, then pleasure is good. Yet, this commits the naturalistic fallacy. One can’t simply assume that something being natural means that it is good. The fact that it is natural for us to find pleasure good only shows that it’s natural for us to find pleasure good. It doesn’t mean pleasure is good.
  • The statement “it is natural for us to find pleasure good” simply doesn’t mean that pleasure is good – that’s simply a different statement. There is no basis for thinking that something being natural means that it is good.

Optional: defence of Naturalism from the is-ought gap and from the naturalistic fallacy

  • We could take the Naturalist’s arguments, like Bentham’s, as inductive, to get around Hume and Moore’s critique.
  • In an inductive argument – the premises are only evidence for the conclusion, not logical proof.
  • Bentham’s argument:
  • P1. It is human nature to find pleasure good (fact – ‘is-statement’).
  • C1. Pleasure is good and we ought to maximise pleasure (value – ‘ought’ statement)
  • This argument clearly does fail as a deduction – because, as Hume and Moore point out, it being natural to find pleasure good does not mean/prove/entail that pleasure is good.
  • However – what if instead, premise 1 is taken as inductive evidence for the conclusion. It’s not meant to prove or mean that pleasure is good – it’s just evidence for pleasure being good. In that case, Hume and Moore’s critique doesn’t apply.
  • The Naturalist could accept that they can’t prove that pleasure = goodness, but they can still argue that they have good inductive evidence for it.
  • Mill made a similar argument to Bentham for pleasure being equal to happiness, and his argument looks more clearly inductive – calling it the ‘only proof possible’.

Moore’s open question argument against naturalism

  • Moore argued that naturalism leads to logical error. 
  • If goodness = pleasure (or any other natural property) then saying ‘goodness = pleasure’ would be just like saying ‘pleasure = pleasure’. 
  • Yet, the latter statement is analytic (true by definition), the former synthetic (true because of the way the world is). 
  • So, goodness cannot = pleasure (or any other natural property).
  • Moore claims then that goodness cannot be defined – you can’t say it is identical to any natural thing without making this logical error. It will always be an ‘open question’ what goodness is – meaning, it can never be defined through identity with some natural thing.
  • A closed question is about something that can be defined through identity – e.g. ‘does a triangle have three sides’. Goodness will never lead to a closed question.

Mackie’s response to the open question argument: 

  • Arguably Moore can at most 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.
  • You cannot simply analyse language and come to an absolutely certain conclusion about what is true of reality. Our concepts could be different to reality.

Non-naturalism – Intuitionism – (realist & cognitivist)

  • Moore argues that naturalism is false – goodness is not a natural property. However, he is still a moral realist. 
  • Since goodness can’t be a natural property, he concludes it must be a non-natural property.
  • The natural world is the physical world of atoms and gravity etc. Moore is proposing that there is more to reality than just natural things and natural properties – there is also a ‘non-natural’ aspect to reality and goodness is a non-natural property.
  • It’s difficult to understand and explain what Moore means by a non-natural reality, and in fact Moore himself later admitted that he did not explain it properly.
  • It’s similar to Plato’s form of the good, which ‘exists’ but is not a natural thing. 
  • Moore also used numbers as an analogy for goodness. Numbers are not physical things, but they clearly have some relationship to reality.
  • Since goodness cannot be shown to be identical to anything (as the naturalistic fallacy and open question arguments show) it therefore cannot be defined. 
  • Moore says goodness is like the colour yellow – you can’t define or describe yellow – but you can recognize it when you see it. 
  • The same is true of goodness. Moore thinks we have an ability called ‘intuition’ which allows our mind to access the non-natural reality where goodness is and that gives us the knowledge of what is right or wrong. 
  • We see a moral action and we simply just know whether it was good or bad.
  • Moore claims ethical language is cognitive. Ethical language expresses beliefs which can be true or false. When making an ethical statement like “Hitler was wrong” this expresses a person’s belief that they gained through intuition.

Mackie criticised Moore

  • If Moore was correct, surely we should expect to find more moral agreement than we do. If we all have an ability to know the objective moral truth, why is there so much moral disagreement? 
  • Furthermore, the moral disagreement falls typically along cultural boundaries.
  • This led Mackie to argue that our intuitions – our sense of right and wrong within us – is better explained by social conditioning than by some mysterious ability called intuition accessing some mysterious non-natural reality.
  • People have the moral intuitions they do because of the way they were raised, not because of some mysterious non-natural reality.
  • Different societies have different views on what is right and wrong – so it looks more credible that social conditioning causes our moral intuitions.
  • Mackie’s argument is successful because he’s admitting he cannot prove there are no non-natural moral properties, but his point is that we have no reason to believe that they exist. We have a much more credible explanation which much better evidence for it.

Optional defence of Moore: 

  • There is a core set of moral views all cultures have in common – like not killing or stealing for no reason.
  • This suggests that there really is some objective basis for ethics which is not purely cultural.

Optional final counter:

  • However, again there are simpler and more scientific explanations. 
  • A society cannot exist without rules against stealing and killing, so of course all the ones which exist will have such rules. We don’t need to imagine there are actual moral properties in reality to explain that.

Emotivism (anti-realist & non-cognitivist)

  • Positivism – the view that science/empiricism is the only valid source of knowledge
  • The logical part of logical positivism refers to the emphasis on language that was started by Russell and continued by Ayer.
  • So put together, logical positivism is applying science to the question of meaning – the view that the only valid meaningful language is that which is scientific – empirically verifiable.
  • Logical positivism led to the creation of the verification principle – that for a statement to be meaningful it must be either analytic (true by definition) or empirically verifiable (there is a way to test whether it is true or false through experience).
  • The idea behind this is that for a word to have meaning it must refer to reality – and if it does refer to reality, this referral should be observable or testable. If language is not about reality, then it can’t be meaningful – it can’t express belief about reality.
  • Ayer’s emotivism claims that when we use ethical language, we are just expressing our emotions. So, if someone says ‘stealing is wrong’ that means ‘boo to stealing’ – it’s as if they have just had a negative emotional outburst about stealing. Emotional outburst cannot be true or false because they are not claims about reality.
  • If someone says ‘charity is good’, it is as if they had said ‘hurrah to charity’.
  • Emotions cannot be true or false, so ethical language cannot be analytic or empirically verifiable and therefore it is meaningless.


  • If emotivism is true, society will fall apart – 
  • without right/wrong people will just do what they want.

Further evaluation: 

  • However, even if it’s true that emotivism would cause the end of society – that doesn’t mean it’s a false theory.

Criticism of emotivism: ethical language can’t reduce to emotion

  • Ethical language involves disagreement – e.g. some think abortion is good, others think its bad.
  • However – emotions cannot disagree. Disagreement requires contrasting claims or beliefs about reality.
  • Emotions are not claims/beliefs, so they can’t disagree.
  • Ethical language involve disagreement, so it cannot reduce to emotion.


  • Ayer tries to respond that there is no such thing as moral disagreement.
  • It might appear that there is – but really there is only factual disagreement which we then have emotional associations with, making it seem like a moral disagreement.
  • Really, there is only factual disagreement and emotional conflict.

Optional further evaluation:

  • Mackie criticises non-cognitivism. He accepts that there is some non-cognitive element to ethical language which explains how it motivates us through our emotions and desires.
  • However, Mackie insists that the way ethical language actually functions in the minds of the average person is to express beliefs. 
  • Think about the average person on the street and imagine asking them whether killing people is objectively and factually wrong. Most of them would probably say yes. This shows that when people use ethical language, like when saying ‘killing is wrong’, people actually believe that killing is wrong, they aren’t only expressing feelings.
  • Mackie is an anti-realist however, he agrees with Ayer that there are no objective moral properties in reality.
  • So, he concludes that although ethical language expresses beliefs, it is all false. This view is called error theory.