What is Ethics? Pt 2: Issues in Metaethics

What is ethics? metaethics normative ethics

In this second post on ethics, we’ll be going into greater detail regarding topics in metaethics.

Metaethics defined simply

To outsiders and newcomers to philosophy, metaethics is likely large, abstract, and counterintuitive. It has a fuzzy character as it isn’t per se focused on the immediate implications of moral matters. In some regards, metaethical frameworks might not inform individuals about what is right or wrong. This isn’t to say that metaethics rejects that there can be notions of right or wrong, but it’s predominately concerned with the properties of morals rather than their specific implications.

Moral “properties” (for lack of better word) can roughly be broken down into three attributes:

Content. What exactly are we saying when we qualify moral values with statements like “good” or “bad?” Do moral statements actually contain descriptive attributes about facts in the world or are they statements merely reflecting states of belief? An area of philosophy known as semantics touches upon some of these questions.

Nature. What are morals like? One of the biggest questions in metaethics, and perhaps in all of philosophy, is if morals values “real.” Are morals, or some facet of morality, universal in that they apply to all people at all times? Or does morality emerge from something more local like culture or individual preference? If morals are indeed universal, what is the nature of their universality?

Source. Where do morals and their justifications come from? Essentially, how do we know that we know what’s right and wrong? This segment of metaethics is reflected in an area called moral epistemology.

Although these three attributes seem distinct, the truth is that a lot of discussions in metaethics may touch on all three simultaneously, sometimes without making distinctions. In order to understand the character of metaethics, one can look at debates between contrasting views to get a broad sense of the objective of metaethics and its areas of focus.

Semantic views in metaethics

One of the big discussions within metaethics revolves around what are known as cognitive and non-cognitive theories of ethics. Cognitive theories hold that when people refer to moral values and make moral judgments they’re talking about things in the world with properties. To say that something has properties means that we can consistently and reliably attribute features to a thing that we can agree exists out in the world. For example, most people agree that tables tend to be “solid” and thus tables can reliably be described as solid objects. However, for some non-cognitivists, they believe we can’t do this with morals. The reason this is the case is because they suggest that moral statements don’t function like other types of statements. While statements like “This chair is solid.” allow us to associate objects like chairs with properties like being solid, statements like “stealing is wrong” don’t relate their subject and predicate in the same way.

This isn’t necessarily because the property “wrongness” isn’t well defined, although some might argue that’s the case, it’s rather because statements with moral content aren’t what non-cognitivists call “truth-apt” or capable of being evaluated for truth or falsity. For example, the statement “raise your hand if you’re confused” is neither true nor false. In the same vein, non-cognitivists might say that “It is wrong to lie,” is similar to “raise your hand if you’re confused” in that both cannot be evaluated for their degree of truth. The latter is an imperative sentence and the former is at best a prescription or a suggestion, even though it is worded as if it were a declarative statement describing the world as it is.

If morals are not truth-apt, then it has severe consequences for moral frameworks which use logic to construct and deduce moral principles and behaviors, as logic only works on propositions or statements with truth values. This doesn’t mean that non-cognitivists don’t believe in morality, however. Furthermore, not every non-cognitivist thinks that moral statements can’t be treated as propositions (even if they believe these statements aren’t actually propositions).

Metaphysical views of metaethics

Views regarding the metaphysical properties of ethical content tend to on some level mirror those surrounding the semantics of ethical content. Just like there’s debate over whether or not the language of morality expresses facts or so-called “descriptive” content, there’s debate over whether or not morals are “real.”

In metaphysics, the word real refers to objects that are objective or mind-independent. This is just a fancy way of saying something exists outside of any one person’s mind. For example, imagine if all humans were to suddenly vanish from the face of the Earth, but stars still existed in the universe. While the word spelled out by the letters s-t-a-r might not exist anymore, it’s clear that most would say that the thing which s-t-a-r refers to – a bright, burning big ball of gas – still would. In this way, we could say that stars are mind-independent although maybe not every property of stars would be considered mind-independent, like “hotness” which is arguably a sensation experienced by minds. As an aside, mind-independence isn’t solely contingent upon human minds; in philosophy, any intelligence or being with self-awareness can count as a mind and there are thought experiments treating God(s), aliens, AI, and even unborn humans as minds.

Schools of thought that promote the mind-independence or the objectivity of some particular concept are referred to as a type of realism. The view that moral facts are real would be called moral realism or moral objectivism, as it’s the view that moral values exist objectively and independent of minds (and thus can objectively be proven true or false). Moral realism is contrasted with a position known as moral relativism which suggests that moral values exist but relative to specific contexts. One popular form of moral relativism is cultural relativism which says that cultural notions of value determine the existence and truth of specific moral beliefs. Another popular form of moral relativism is moral subjectivism which says that it’s individual minds rather than objective properties that determine the existence and value of moral facts.

Even if you’re a non-philosopher and are unfamiliar with these terms, you’ve likely encountered some version of this discourse. It’s relevant in politics as well as in religion and has been for some time. The truth is that this has been a long, ongoing debate because both views are appealing for different reasons. It’s clear that moral objectivism allows for what philosophers call universality or a type of consistency which allows us to compare circumstances that are similar. If murder is in some sense objectively wrong, then it means means that the harm and consequences of of particular murder can be compared to another murder of similar circumstances without complication. This is likely something that appeals to our moral intuitions as humans.

Conversely, though, while moral objectivism has this appeal, at least for certain morals, the nature surrounding the “realness” of moral facts isn’t as intuitive. While many might be able to concede that stars are mind-independent, as far as we know morals aren’t like stars in that they don’t have an observable physical presence. For relativists like moral subjectivists, it’s not exactly clear how moral values, which seem to stem solely from human wants and desires, exist separately from humans. Simply put, according to relativists if there were no intelligent beings around who were afraid of being killed (or alternatively who wanted to be killed), then the notion of murder being right or wrong couldn’t be reflected on in any “objective” sense. Realists and objectivists do have a response to this concern, but deciding upon how morals are real – be it from nature (features of evolution or psychology), from abstract principles governing the cosmos (similar to how some view the laws of mathematics), or something else entirely – is a point of deep contention among those who believe in objective moral facts.

While a great deal of the discourse surrounding the metaphysics of ethics revolves around realism and relativism, there are a series of other views which are sometimes included in the discussion. Moral nihilism, moral skepticism, and moral anti-realism are all positions which on some level reject the validity of moral statements. Moral nihilism says that no moral values, subjective or objective, exist at all. Moral skepticism says that there cannot be knowledge regarding the existence of moral facts and values. Finally, moral anti-realism refers to a set of values that either reject the validity or some (or all) moral claims or finds them to be indeterminate. Keep in mind that sometimes the distinction between these terms can be a bit fuzzy. Along with some versions of moral relativism like moral subjectivism, there are a few philosophers who might consider moral nihilism and moral skepticism forms of moral anti-realism.

Epistemological views of metaethics

The epistemological concerns within ethics aren’t too different from general epistemological concerns. Indeed, moral epistemology can be seen as just the application of epistemology to moral “objects.” For example, like with regular epistemology, there are foundationalists called moral foundationalists, who believe that moral beliefs are substantiated by other basic beliefs. These basic beliefs don’t have to be moral in nature (ethical naturalists, for example, beleive that facts of nature substantiate moral values), although some moral foundationalists might contend they should. Because of the interconnectedness of metaethical issues, it’s very hard to discuss moral epistemology devoid of any of the other two areas of metaethics.

So what’s the takeaway? Metaethics is a big field with lots of concerns. But while these concerns can be broken up into distinct areas – moral language, moral properties, moral justification – they’re all connected. Cognitivists, for example, must make sure to be aware of the metaphysical implications of their point of view. While cognitivists can be either subjectivists or objectivists, a cognitive theory can usually only favor one of these metaphysical viewpoints at a time.

Beyond metaethics

The growing fields of cognitive science and experimental philosophy reveal that empirical or observational research might shed some light on issues of metaethics and ethics. One of the major promises is potentially uncovering the relationship between emotions, intentions, motivations, and beliefs. This, in turn, could improve philosophers’ understanding of existing categories within metaethics.