What is metaethics?

What is metaethics?

The word ‘meta’ means ‘beyond’ or ‘about’, and as a prefix means a higher level of abstraction of the topic at hand, which is ethics. So metaethics is not concerned with making moral claims – that’s the realm of normative ethics. Metaethics involves making claims about the nature of moral claims.

Let’s take the claim that ‘we ought to keep our promises’. This could be expressed as a moral fact: ‘it is the case that breaking our promises is wrong’. Metaethics asks if moral facts such as these actually exist, or are they merely statements about how we feel about moral issues? If they do exist, what kind of thing are they? Moreover, can we ever know what these facts are? Of course, there is all manner of views about the answers to these questions, and the purpose of this post is to classify them in a way that is comprehensible.

Moral realism

The most important question is whether moral facts exist at all. Moral realists think they do, and so these moral facts make our moral judgments true or false. If I claim that it’s okay to break my promise, and it is a moral fact that ‘it is the case that breaking our promises is wrong’, then my claim is false. Conversely, moral anti-realists reject that there are such things as moral facts (sometime they are called irrealists).

Moral realism is a broad church – there are a wide variety of opinions about what kind of thing moral facts are, and disagreement about the facts themselves. It might even be that moral facts exist, but we have no way to determine what they are – a position known as moral skepticism.

The most important question for moral realists is whether moral facts are objective: whether they exist independently of human beings or not. Moral relativism says moral facts are true or false relative to some human standard. Relativists point to the diversity of moral values across cultures as evidence for their views, and believe that this diversity shows objective moral facts are unlikely. If moral facts aren’t objective, is moral relativism really a form of moral realism? Some philosophers believe it is, while others argue that moral relativism is actually an anti-realist position.

If moral facts are objective, a position sometimes called moral absolutism, what kind of thing are moral facts? Those who hold to naturalism – the belief that only features of our universe exist are natural ones, i.e. those amenable to study by empirical science – must believe moral facts are natural, a position called naturalistic moral realism. There’s a problem with this view though, which faces an objection known as Moore’s Open Question Argument. This argument led Moore to non-naturalistic moral realism, which concludes we must admit the existence of unique non-natural properties such as goodness. There are two options here: either these properties are supernatural, attributable to God or gods in some manner, or they are non-natural and non-supernatural, a position known as non-natural non-theistic moral realism and ably supported by Erik J. Wielenberg. I discuss Wielenberg’s ideas here.

It’s time to mention cognitivism, a term often encountered in metaethics. It’s a theory that says moral claims are expressions of beliefs that can be true or false. This sounds like moral realism, but it’s broader than this (especially if you think moral relativists are not realists). Moral relativists are cognitivists, yes, because they believe moral claims can be true or false. But you can be a cognitivist and believe all moral claims are false. In this case you are what’s called an error theorist – there are no moral facts, it’s all nonsense and you believe all talk of morals is hugely in error. J. L. Mackie is the most famous advocate of this view.

Moral anti-realism

Recall that anti-realists reject that there are things such as moral facts, and so error theorists are also anti-realists as well as being cognitivists! But most anti-realists are noncognitivists: like error theorists, they don’t believe there are such things as moral facts. But unlike error theorists, noncognitivists thinks people who accept moral claims don’t actually have real beliefs about these moral claims, but instead are expressing their attitudes or desires. One form of noncognitivism is called emotivism, where moral claims are said to express our emotions. For this reason it is sometimes known as hurrah/boo theory. and is also a form of expressivism.

I haven’t yet mentioned an important anti-realist position known as moral nihilism, which is that nothing is morally wrong. Nihilism is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, who was not only a moral nihilist but a nihilist about any values at all. This doesn’t sound much different to error theorists, and indeed error theorists are often thought of as moral nihilists.

It should be apparent by now that metaethics is a deep rabbit hole to explore. One useful tool for navigating the topic is the chart shown below, which I believe is the work of David Faraci. You’ll see that there are numerous other metaethical views not mentioned in this overview.  Fortunately, there are many good introductory texts on metaethics, one being Alex Miller’s An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics which I have seen recommended, as well as Metaethics: An Introduction by Andrew Fisher.

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Are there objective moral values?

Are there objective moral values?

Objective moral values are moral values that are “independent of human desires, perceptions, beliefs and practices”. Those who hold that moral values are objective are known as moral realists, and they believe that statements such as “slavery is wrong” are true or false regardless of who says them, and where and when they were said.

Atheists such as Nietzsche, Hume and Mackie all agreed that there are no objective moral values in a godless universe. Although this is a common position, not all atheists hold to it, and a recent post concluded that it is possible to maintain that objective moral values could exist without God. This involves accepting that brute moral facts just happen to exist in our universe, and that they match our moral beliefs.

By contrast, theists explain moral facts by appealing to the necessary existence of God, which neatly explains moral obligation and why moral facts are correlated with our moral beliefs. The theistic view seems more persuasive, but of course the theistic worldview entails many other commitments which atheists find untenable.

Why do atheists like Wielenberg even think objective moral values exist? Given their commitment to an evolutionary account for our existence, it seems logical to attribute our moral beliefs and our intuitions about these beliefs to natural selection, at least indirectly. But doing so makes it difficult to be a realist about moral values, as it leads to Sharon Street’s “Darwinian dilemma” – either evolutionary forces have somehow conspired to produce moral beliefs that match these objective moral values, or our moral beliefs don’t coincide with whatever objective moral values exist at all. If objective moral values are jettisoned, the Darwinian dilemma dissolves, so why hold to this position?

Interestingly, it’s a very common position. In fact the majority of philosophers surveyed  are moral realists. Given that over two thirds have a preference for atheism, it seems moral realism is widespread even amongst atheists.

Why?

David Enoch contends that believing morality is objective has considerable appeal to us, and he gives three reasons why this is so.

Firstly, Enoch uses a joke to illustrate what he calls the spinach test. A child who hates spinach says “I’m glad I hate spinach, because otherwise I might have eaten it, and it’s yucky!”.  It’s funny because the only reason for not eating it is because of personal preference. If you did like it, it wouldn’t be yucky.

But it isn’t funny when it’s about a moral position. It seems quite reasonable to say, “I’m glad I wasn’t born in an era when slavery was acceptable, because I would have accepted it, and I think slavery is wrong”. This sentiment seems reasonable because we are thinking beyond our personal preferences. We think slavery is objectively wrong.

Enoch’s second test is about how moral disagreement feels – the phenomenology of disagreement. When we have an argument about a topic such as abortion, or some other issue we care deeply about, it doesn’t feel like an argument about personal preferences  such as the taste of chocolate.  It feels like an argument about something objective. Enoch compares it to a debate on global warming, which we know to be an objective matter irrespective of our position on it.

The third test is the “what if?” – or counterfactual – test for objectivity. If our beliefs or practices were very different, would it still be true that so-and-so? Enoch gives the example of smoking causing cancer. If we believed smoking was harmless, would it still be true that smoking causes cancer? Of course – it is an objective fact that smoking causes cancer, no matter what we believe. We can apply the same test to moral beliefs. If  we believed slavery is acceptable, would it still be wrong? It seems clear that the answer is yes, slavery would still be wrong. We would want a society that believes slavery is acceptable to change their views.

Enoch contends that these tests demonstrate that we very much want to regard morality as being objective. We want to be able to say that torturing babies for fun is objectively wrong no matter what some people may think.

But we are still left with the Darwinian dilemma and consequently have at least one good reason to think that morality is not objective. Of course, some sort of theistic evolution can counter this, but are there any good arguments for objective morality other than our intuitions?

Yes, and they will be explored in part two, coming soon!