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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 studied by philosophers, the others being normative ethics and applied ethics.

While normative ethics addresses such questions as "What should I 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 studying moral judgments about proper actions can guide us to a true account of the nature of morality.

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  • ✪ Metaethics: Crash Course Philosophy #32
  • ✪ Metaethics: An Introduction
  • ✪ Metaethics
  • ✪ Metaethics 1 - Introduction
  • ✪ Ethics vs Metaethics (Philosophical Distinction)


Is it wrong to steal to feed your family? Is there such a thing as a good lie? Questions like these are the domain of ethics – the branch of philosophy that studies morality, or right and wrong behavior. But before we can parse questions like these, we need to go deeper – into metaethics, which studies the very foundations of morality itself. Metaethics asks questions as basic as: what is morality? What’s its nature? Like, is it an objective thing, out there in the world, waiting to be known? Or is it more like a preference, an opinion, or just a bunch of cultural conventions? There are lots of different metaethical views out there. And one way to understand them is to put them to a test to see how they’d help you solve some thorny ethical problems. Like a scenario where you have to steal food or lie for a good cause. Or what about this: What if you set out to harm someone, but you ended up saving their life by accident? [Theme Music] Some people think that ethics is a kind of science, that it seeks to discover moral truths, whose existence is testable and provable. But others believe the nature of morality is every bit as subjective as whether you prefer plain M&Ms, or peanut. There’s just no right answer. Unless you have a peanut allergy. So, you and your friend might totally agree on whether something is immoral or not, but you might disagree fervently about why. For an example of a slippery moral scenario, let’s just head straight over to the Thought Bubble for some Flash Philosophy. A burglar plots to break into an old woman’s house on a Sunday morning, a time when he knows she’s always at church. So one Sunday, he creeps up to her back window, and smashes it with a hammer. But, after he looks inside, he sees that the old woman isn’t at church. She’s in there, laying face-down on the floor. The sight of her body scares the burglar, and he runs away. He was down for a little bit of burglary, but getting nabbed for murder was NOT part of his plan. But what the burglar didn’t know was that the old woman wasn’t dead. She was unconscious, having passed out because of a carbon monoxide leak that would have killed her. When the burglar broke the window, he let out some of the toxic gas, and let in fresh air, which allowed her to regain consciousness. So, the burglar broke into the house with the intention of stealing from the woman, but, inadvertently, he saved her life. Did the burglar do a good thing? Does he deserve praise, even though he didn’t intend to help the woman? Likewise, does he still deserve blame, even though he didn’t actually get around to stealing anything, and ended up saving the woman’s life? Thanks Thought Bubble! Your answers to these questions will help you suss out where your moral sensibilities lie. And why you answer the way you do will say a lot about what metaethical view you subscribe to. One of the most widely held metaethical views is known as Moral Realism, the belief that there are moral facts, in the same way that there are scientific facts. In this view, any moral proposition can only be true, or false. And for a lot of us, our gut intuition tells us that there are moral facts. Some things are just wrong, and others are indisputably right. Like, a lot of people think that gratuitous violence is always wrong, and nurturing children is always right – no matter what. But, you don’t have to dig very deep into moral realism before you run into trouble. Like for one thing, if there are moral facts, where do they come from? How do we know what they are? Are they testable, like scientific facts are? Are they falsifiable? And, if morality is based on facts, then why is there so much disagreement about what’s moral and what’s not, as opposed to science, where there’s often more consensus? This is what’s known as the grounding problem. The grounding problem of ethics is the search for a foundation for our moral beliefs, something solid that would make them true in a way that is clear, objective, and unmoving. If you can’t find a way to ground morality, you might be pushed toward another metaethical view: Moral Antirealism. This is the belief that moral propositions don’t refer to objective features of the world at all – that there are no moral facts. So a moral anti-realist would argue that there’s nothing about gratuitous violence that’s inherently wrong. Likewise, they’d say, if you look at the rest of the animal kingdom, sometimes nurturing your kids doesn’t seem like it’s that important. So, maybe morality isn’t the same for everyone. But still, most people you know – including yourself – are committed to some form of moral realism. And there are MANY forms. So let’s familiarize ourselves with some of its most popular flavors. Some moral realists are Moral Absolutists. Not only do they believe in moral facts, they believe there are some moral facts that don’t change. So, for them, if something is wrong, it’s wrong regardless of culture or circumstance. Moral facts apply as universally and as constantly as gravity or the speed of light. If moral absolutism sounds too rigid, maybe Moral Relativism would appeal to you. This view says that more than one moral position on a given topic can be correct. And one of the most common forms of moral relativism is cultural relativism. But there are actually two different things a person might mean when they talk about cultural relativism. The more general kind is Descriptive Cultural Relativism. This is simply the belief that people’s moral beliefs differ from culture to culture. No one really disputes that – it seems obviously true. Like, some cultures believe that capital punishment is morally right, and other cultures believe it’s morally wrong – that killing another human is inherently unethical. But there’s also Normative Cultural Relativism, which says that it’s not our beliefs, but moral facts themselves that differ from culture to culture. So in this view, capital punishment is morally correct in some cultures and is morally wrong in others. Here, it’s the moral fact of the matter that differs, based on culture. Now, normative cultural relativism might sound pretty good to you; it does at first to a lot of people. Because it seems like it’s all about inclusiveness and tolerance. Who am I to tell other cultures how they should live, right? But this view actually has some pretty big flaws. If every culture is the sole arbiter of what’s right for it, that means no culture can actually be wrong. It means Nazi culture actually was right, for the people living in that culture. A dissenting German voice in, say, 1940, would have just been wrong, if it had claimed that Jewish people deserved to be treated the same as other Germans. And what makes things even weirder is that, if normative cultural relativism is true, then the concept of moral progress doesn’t make sense, either. If what everyone is doing right now is right, relative to their own culture, then there’s never any reason to change anything. Problems like these make some people take a second look at the antirealist stance, which, remember, is the view that there just aren’t any moral facts. Just one flavor of moral antirealism is Moral Subjectivism. This view says that moral statements can be true and false – right or wrong – but they refer only to people’s attitudes, rather than their actions. By this thinking, capital punishment is neither right nor wrong, but people definitely have preferences about it. And those preferences key into personal attitudes, but not into actual, objective moral facts about the world. Like, some people favor capital punishment, and think it’s just. Others oppose it and think it’s unjust. But it doesn’t go any deeper than that. There are no moral facts, only moral attitudes. There are other varieties of both moral realism and antirealism, but this should give you an idea of the general, metaethical lay of the land. And by now, it probably seems like I’ve given you a lot more problems than solutions. So let’s talk about the moral frameworks you’ll use to navigate your way through all of these moral mazes. These frameworks are known as ethical theories. They’re moral foundations that help you come up with consistent answers about right and wrong conduct. All ethical theories have some kind of starting assumptions, which shouldn’t be surprising, because really all of our beliefs rest on some basic, assumed beliefs. For instance, natural law theory, which we’ll study soon, relies on the starting assumption that God created the universe according to a well-ordered plan. While another ethical theory, known as utilitarianism, relies on the starting assumption that all beings share a common desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. The starting assumptions of a theory can lead us to other beliefs, but if you reject those initial assumptions, the rest of the theory just doesn’t follow. Now, in addition to starting assumptions, ethical theories also consist of Moral Principles, which are the building blocks that make up the theories. And these principles can be shared between more than one theory. For instance, many ethical theories agree on the principle that it’s wrong to cause unjustified suffering. Some ethical theories hold the principle that any unjustified killing is wrong – and that includes animals – while other theories hold the principle that it’s only wrong to unjustifiably kill humans. But the thing about ethical theories is that most people don’t identify with just one. Instead, most people identify with principles from several theories that help them form their own moral views. We’re going to be spending several weeks learning about these ethical theories, and you’ll probably find elements of some that you already believe, and others that you definitely disagree with. But all of this accepting and rejecting will help you develop a new way to talk about – and think about – what are, for now, your gut moral intuitions. Today we talked about metaethics. We discussed three forms of moral realism and we learned the difference between descriptive and normative cultural relativism. We also learned about moral subjectivism, which is a form of moral antirealism. And we introduced the concept of an ethical theory. Next time we’re going to learn about the ethical theory known as the Divine Command Theory. Crash Course Philosophy is produced in association with PBS Digital Studios. You can head over to their channel and check out a playlist of the latest episodes from shows like: Physics Girl, Shanks FX, and PBS Space Time. This episode of Crash Course Philosophy was filmed in the Doctor Cheryl C. Kinney Crash Course Studio with the help of all of these awesome people and our equally fantastic graphics team is Thought Cafe.


Meta-ethical questions

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

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

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 mainly 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, which asserts that all are erroneous.
      • 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 that 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 morally wrong" and the statement "Murder is morally permissible" are false, according to 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 Charles Stevenson, holds that ethical sentences serve merely to express emotions. Ayer argues that ethical sentences are expressions of approval or disapproval, not assertions. 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.[2] 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.[3][4]

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.[5][6]

Substantial theories

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 intelligent beings regardless of species, 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). Moral universalism 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 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 way to measure which is preferable. A notable proponent of this view is Isaiah Berlin.
    • Moral relativism maintains 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. Some but not all relativist theories are forms of moral subjectivism, although not all subjectivist theories are relativistic.
  • Moral nihilism, also known as ethical nihilism, is the meta-ethical view that nothing has intrinsic moral value. For example, a moral nihilist would say that killing someone, for whatever reason, is intrinsically neither morally right nor morally wrong. Moral nihilism must be distinguished from moral relativism, which does allow for moral statements to be intrinsically true or false in a non-universal 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 universal).

Justification theories

These are theories that attempt to answer questions like, "How may moral judgments be supported or defended?" or "Why should I be moral?"

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 epistemological theories.

  • Most moral epistemologies posit that moral knowledge is somehow possible, as opposed to moral skepticism.
    • Amongst them, there are those who hold that moral knowledge is gained inferentially on the basis of some sort of non-moral epistemic process, as opposed to ethical intuitionism.
    • 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. 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, to be more specific, 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.

See also


  1. ^ a b Garner, Richard T.; Bernard Rosen (1967). Moral Philosophy: A Systematic Introduction to Normative Ethics and Meta-ethics. New York: Macmillan. p. 215. LOC card number 67-18887.
  2. ^ Jackson, Frank "Critical Notice" Australasian Journal of Philosophy Vol. 70, No. 4; December 1992 (pp. 475-488).
  3. ^ Hurley, S.L. (1989). Natural Reasons: Personality and Polity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. ^ Hurley, S.L. (1985). "Objectivity and Disagreement." in Morality and Objectivity, Ted Honderich (ed.). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 54-97.
  5. ^ Couture, Jocelyne and Kai Nielsen (1995). "Introduction: The Ages of Metaethics," in On the Relevance of Metaethics: New Essays in Metaethics, Jocelyne Couture and Kai Nielsen (eds.). Calgary: University of Calgary Press, pp. 1-30.
  6. ^ Gibbard, Allan (1993). "Reply to Railton," in Naturalism and Normativity, Enrique Villanueva (ed.). Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview, pp. 52-59.

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