Metaethics 2 page Summary

AS RS Revision: Unit 3 Developments: 2 page Summaries.
What is meta-ethics?
Meta-ethics is the study of how ethical language (words like ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’, ‘wrong’) is used. It
looks at what the words mean and it looks at how people use them and how they work.
What do I need to know?
 The is/ought gap;
 Debates about the good;
 Emotivism.
The is/ought gap (sometimes known as the fact – value distinction).
 An ‘is’ statement is a statement of fact e.g. ‘Stewie killed Lois.’
 An ‘ought’ statement is a statement of value e.g. ‘Stewie ought not to have killed Lois.’
 David Hume argued that one cannot go from a statement of fact to a statement of value without
proper explanation: for example it is not enough to say ‘The Bible says homosexuality is wrong,
therefore homosexuals cannot get married’ this is the is/ought gap or fact – value distinction.
 People who believe that there are moral facts are called ethical naturalists or cognitivists. Those
who follow natural moral law, utilitarians and many who follow religious ethics are ethical
naturalists because they define goodness in terms of something non-moral such as the laws of
nature, pleasure or the will of God. Naturalists believe that there doesn’t need to be a gap
between is statements and ought statements.
 Those who think that moral statements cannot be reduced to fact and that ‘goodness’ cannot be
defined are known as non-naturalists. G.E. Moore was an ethical non-naturalist. Non-naturalists
believe that is statements and ought statements do not go together. Moore called putting is and
ought statements together ‘the naturalistic fallacy.’
The naturalistic fallacy.
This is a form of ethical non-naturalism: it was devised by G.E. Moore.
Moore believed that the term ‘good’ is a simple term (like ‘yellow’) which cannot be defined.
Moore believed that we cannot prove moral statements.
Moore believed that the only way of knowing if something is good or not is through intuition:
this makes Moore and ethical intuitionist.
 The strength of arguing that values are not facts is that it keeps moral debate open: the statement
‘homosexuality is wrong’ cannot be verified in the same way as ‘Paris is the capital of France.’
Non-naturalism forces us to try to defend our moral position which stops us being sloppy moral
thinkers who say ‘torture is OK because it is.’
 However, it is clear that there are some moral statements which are almost universally accepted
and seem like facts such as ‘the torture of innocent children is wrong.’
 If we refuse to accept that there are any moral facts, we are in danger of not being able to
condemn any actions which are obviously morally wrong.
 A problem with intuitionism is that Moore does not explain where our moral intuitions come
from, which reduces morality to guess work.
Debates about the good.
AS RS Revision: Unit 3 Developments: 2 page Summaries.
 Is goodness objective (like Plato’s Forms) or subjective (i.e. it varies from person to person)?
 How can we know that something is good? Do we decide it a priori, is it revealed to us or do we
look at the consequences of the action like utilitarians?
 Is goodness known by pleasure, the will of God, virtue, achieving happiness?
 Do statements about goodness correspond to facts (realism) or are they only true so far as they
have meaning within a particular community (anti-realism)?
Most closely associated with A.J Ayer and C.L. Stevenson.
Ayer argued that there are only two types of meaningful statement: analytic and synthetic.
Because moral statements cannot be verified (he argued) they are meaningless.
Ayer argued that moral statements are simply expressions of emotion: whether we approve of
something or not. Emotivism is sometimes called hurrah-boo ethics, because we are either saying
‘hurrah’ if something is right or ‘boo’ if something is wrong: nothing more.
 Ethical statements are used to arouse feelings in others: e.g. ‘killing is wrong’ is said partially to
make another person agree with the speaker.
 Stevenson argued that it is through the use of ethical terms through disagreements that we come
to understand their meaning better.
 Emotivism has refined our understanding of how the word good works in an ethical statement
and shows the strong connection between morality and emotions.
 Emotivism, especially that of Stevenson, requires us to think about how we use ethical statements
to motivate others.
 But, Peter Vardy describes Ayer’s emotivism as an ‘ethical non-theory’ which just discusses
feelings, not ethics.
 Ayer’s theory leaves us with the difficult problem of not having any moral facts: those who follow
religious ethical systems such as shari’ah law would claim that there are moral facts and that other
people can be morally in the wrong.
See also the department notes on meta-ethics and subjective, objective and relative. There are good
sections in Bowie and good essays in Clarke. Also check the model essays from the exam board.