What is Metaethics?

When I say I think I can solve (some of) metaethics, what ex­actly is it that I think I can solve?

First, we must dis­t­in­guish the study of ethics or moral­ity from the an­thro­pol­ogy of moral be­lief and prac­tice. The first one asks: “What is right?” The sec­ond one asks: “What do peo­ple think is right?” Of course, one can in­form the other, but it’s im­por­tant not to con­fuse the two. One can cor­rectly say that differ­ent cul­tures have differ­ent ‘morals’ in that they have differ­ent moral be­liefs and prac­tices, but this may not an­swer the ques­tion of whether or not they are be­hav­ing in morally right ways.

My fo­cus is metaethics, so I’ll dis­cuss the an­thro­pol­ogy of moral be­lief and prac­tice only when it is rele­vant for mak­ing points about metaethics.

So what is metaethics? Many peo­ple break the field of ethics into three sub-fields: ap­plied ethics, nor­ma­tive ethics, and metaethics.

Ap­plied ethics: Is abor­tion morally right? How should we treat an­i­mals? What poli­ti­cal and eco­nomic sys­tems are most moral? What are the moral re­spon­si­bil­ities of busi­nesses? How should doc­tors re­spond to com­plex and un­cer­tain situ­a­tions? When is ly­ing ac­cept­able? What kinds of sex are right or wrong? Is eu­thana­sia ac­cept­able?

Nor­ma­tive ethics: What moral prin­ci­ples should we use in or­der to de­cide how to treat an­i­mals, when ly­ing is ac­cept­able, and so on? Is moral­ity de­cided by what pro­duces the great­est good for the great­est num­ber? Is it de­cided by a list of un­break­able rules? Is it de­cided by a list of char­ac­ter virtues? Is it de­cided by a hy­po­thet­i­cal so­cial con­tract drafted un­der ideal cir­cum­stances?

Me­taethics: What does moral lan­guage mean? Do moral facts ex­ist? If so, what are they like, and are they re­ducible to nat­u­ral facts? How can we know whether moral judg­ments are true or false? Is there a con­nec­tion be­tween mak­ing a moral judg­ment and be­ing mo­ti­vated to abide by it? Are moral judg­ments ob­jec­tive or sub­jec­tive, rel­a­tive or ab­solute? Does it make sense to talk about moral progress?

Others pre­fer to com­bine ap­plied ethics and nor­ma­tive ethics so that the break­down be­comes: nor­ma­tive ethics vs. metaethics, or ‘first or­der’ moral ques­tions (nor­ma­tive ethics) vs. ‘sec­ond or­der’ ques­tions (metaethics).

Main­stream views in metaethics

To illus­trate how peo­ple can give differ­ent an­swers to the ques­tions of metaethics, let me sum­ma­rize some of the main­stream philo­soph­i­cal po­si­tions in metaethics.

Cog­ni­tivism vs. non-cog­ni­tivism: This is a de­bate about what is hap­pen­ing when peo­ple en­gage in moral dis­course. When some­one says “Mur­der is wrong,” are they try­ing to state a fact about mur­der, that it has the prop­erty of be­ing wrong? Or are they merely ex­press­ing a nega­tive emo­tion to­ward mur­der, as if they had gasped aloud and said “Mur­der!” with a dis­ap­prov­ing tone?

Another way of say­ing this is that cog­ni­tivists think moral dis­course is ‘truth-apt’ - that is, moral state­ments are the kinds of things that can be true or false. Some cog­ni­tivists think that all moral claims are in fact false (er­ror the­ory), just as the athe­ist thinks that claims about gods are usu­ally meant to be fact-stat­ing but in fact are all false be­cause gods don’t ex­ist.1 Other cog­ni­tivists think that at least some moral claims are true. Nat­u­ral­ism holds that moral judg­ments are true or false be­cause of nat­u­ral facts,2 while non-nat­u­ral­ism holds that moral judg­ments are true or false be­cause of non-nat­u­ral facts.3 Weak cog­ni­tivism holds that moral judg­ments can be true or false not be­cause they agree with cer­tain (nat­u­ral or non-nat­u­ral) opinion-in­de­pen­dent facts, but be­cause our con­sid­ered opinions de­ter­mine the moral facts.4

Non-cog­ni­tivists, in con­trast, tend to think that moral dis­course is not truth-apt. Ayer (1936) held that moral sen­tences ex­press our emo­tions (“Mur­der? Yuck!”) about cer­tain ac­tions. This is called emo­tivism or ex­pres­sivism. Another the­ory is pre­scrip­tivism, the idea that moral sen­tences ex­press com­mands (“Don’t mur­der!”).5 Or per­haps moral judg­ments ex­press our ac­cep­tance of cer­tain norms (norm ex­pres­sivism).6 Or maybe our moral judg­ments ex­press our dis­po­si­tions to form sen­ti­ments of ap­proval or dis­ap­proval (quasi-re­al­ism).7

Mo­ral psy­chol­ogy: One ma­jor de­bate in moral psy­chol­ogy con­cerns whether moral judg­ments re­quire some (defea­si­ble) mo­ti­va­tion to ad­here to the moral judg­ment (mo­ti­va­tional in­ter­nal­ism), or whether one can make a moral judg­ment with­out be­ing mo­ti­vated to ad­here to it (mo­ti­va­tional ex­ter­nal­ism). Another de­bate con­cerns whether mo­ti­va­tion de­pends on both be­liefs and de­sires (the Humean the­ory of mo­ti­va­tion), or whether some be­liefs are by them­selves in­trin­si­cally mo­ti­vat­ing (non-Humean the­o­ries of mo­ti­va­tion).

More re­cently, re­searchers have run a num­ber of ex­per­i­ments to test the mechanisms by which peo­ple make moral judg­ments. I will list a few of the most sur­pris­ing and fa­mous re­sults:

  • Whether we judge an ac­tion as ‘in­ten­tional’ or not of­ten de­pends on the judged good­ness or bad­ness of the ac­tion, not the in­ter­nal states of the agent.8

  • Our moral judg­ments are sig­nifi­cantly af­fected by whether we are in the pres­ence of freshly baked bread or a low con­cen­tra­tion of fart spray that only the sub­con­scious mind can de­tect.9

  • Our moral judg­ments are greatly af­fected by point­ing mag­nets at the point in our brain that pro­cesses the­ory of mind.10

  • Peo­ple tend to in­sist that cer­tain things are right or wrong even when a hy­po­thet­i­cal situ­a­tion is con­structed such that they ad­mit they can give no rea­son for their judg­ment.11

  • We use our re­cently-evolved neo­cor­tex to make util­i­tar­ian judg­ments, and de­on­tolog­i­cal judg­ments tend to come from evolu­tion­ar­ily older parts of our brains.12

  • Peo­ple give harsher moral judg­ments when they feel clean.13

Mo­ral episte­mol­ogy: Differ­ent views on cog­ni­tivism vs. non-cog­ni­tivism and moral psy­chol­ogy sug­gest differ­ent views of moral episte­mol­ogy. How can we know moral facts? Non-cog­ni­tivists and er­ror the­o­rists think there are no moral facts to be known. Those who be­lieve moral facts an­swer to non-nat­u­ral facts tend to think that moral knowl­edge comes from in­tu­ition, which some­how has ac­cess to non-nat­u­ral facts. Mo­ral nat­u­ral­ists tend to think that moral facts can be ac­cessed sim­ply by do­ing sci­ence.

Ty­ing it all together

I will not be try­ing very hard to fit my plu­ral­is­tic moral re­duc­tion­ism into these cat­e­gories. I’ll be ar­gu­ing about the sub­stance, not the sym­bols. But it still helps to have a con­cept of the sub­ject mat­ter by way of such ex­am­ples.

Maybe main­stream metaethics will make more sense in flowchart form. Here’s a flowchart I adapted from Miller (2003). If you don’t un­der­stand the bot­tom-most branch­ing, read chap­ter 9 of Miller’s book or else just don’t worry about it. (Click through for full size.)

Next post: Con­cep­tual Anal­y­sis and Mo­ral Theory

Pre­vi­ous post: Head­ing Toward: No-Non­sense Metaethics


1 This is not quite cor­rect. The er­ror the­o­rist can hold that a state­ment like “Mur­der is not wrong” is true, for he thinks that mur­der is not wrong or right. Rather, the er­ror the­o­rist claims that all moral state­ments which pre­sup­pose the ex­is­tence of a moral prop­erty are false, be­cause no such moral prop­er­ties ex­ist. See Joyce (2004). Mackie (1977) is the clas­sic state­ment of er­ror the­ory.

2 Stur­geon (1988); Boyd (1988); Brink (1989); Brandt (1979); Rail­ton (1986); Jack­son (1998). I have writ­ten in­tro­duc­tions to the three ma­jor ver­sions of moral nat­u­ral­ism: Cor­nell re­al­ism, Rail­ton’s moral re­duc­tion­ism (1, 2), and Jack­son’s moral func­tion­al­ism.

3 Moore (1903); McDow­ell (1998); Wig­gins (1987).

4 For an overview of such the­o­ries, see Miller (2003), chap­ter 7.

5 See Car­nap (1937), p. 23-25; Hare (1952).

6 Gib­bard (1990).

7 Black­burn (1984).

8 The Knobe Effect. See Knobe (2003).

9 Sch­nall et al. (2008); Baron & Thom­ley (1994).

10 Young et al. (2010). I in­ter­viewed the au­thor of this study here.

11 This is moral dum­found­ing. See Haidt (2001).

12 Greene (2007).

13 Zhong et al. (2010).


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Boyd (1988). How to be a Mo­ral Real­ist. In Sayre-McCord (ed.), Es­says in Mo­ral Real­ism (pp. 181-122). Cor­nell Univer­sity Press.

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Hare (1952). The Lan­guage of Mo­rals. Oxford Univer­sity Press.

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Knobe (2003). In­ten­tional Ac­tion and Side Effects in Or­di­nary Lan­guage. Anal­y­sis, 63: 190-193.

Mackie (1977). Ethics: In­vent­ing Right and Wrong. Pen­guin.

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Sch­nall, Haidt, Clore, & Jor­dan (2008). Dis­gust as em­bod­ied moral judg­ment. Per­son­al­ity and So­cial Psy­chol­ogy Bul­letin, 34(8): 1096-1109.

Stur­geon (1988). Mo­ral ex­pla­na­tions. In Sayre-McCord (ed.), Es­says in Mo­ral Real­ism (pp. 229-255). Cor­nell Univer­sity Press.

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Young, Cam­prodon, Hauser, Pas­cual-Leone, & Saxe (2010). Dis­rup­tion of the right tem­poropari­etal junc­tion with tran­scra­nial mag­netic stim­u­la­tion re­duces the role of be­liefs in moral judg­ments. Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tional Academy of Sciences, 107: 6753-6758.

Zhong, Stre­jcek, & Si­vanathan (2010). A clean self can ren­der harsh moral judg­ment. Jour­nal of Ex­per­i­men­tal So­cial Psy­chol­ogy, 46 (5): 859-862