Metaethics Intro

By Michael Gakuran | | Philosophy | Leave a comment |

what-is-goodBack to School! I’ve entered my final year at University and am taking 3 modules: ‘Metaethics’ and ‘Kant’s Critical Philosophy’ this semester and next semester will be the Philosophy of Sex! This year could well be the last time I post seriously about philosophically-related things, but I will always try to keep that ‘breath of philosophy’ about my journal even when the hardcore posts stop. Once a philosopher, always a philosopher, right? My friends and family never fail to remind me of my argumentative nature… ^_^;

(P.S. Skip to the bottom for a refutation of the Divine Command Theory – is something good because God commands it?)

But enough chit-chat. If all goes to plan, I will be summarising the stuff I learn in my Metaethics class more regularly this semester (but when has it ever gone to plan..?) and also knocking up some stuff on Kant and his refutation that we can think. Okay, not quite, but he does refute we can know anything other-worldly (there goes God…) because our reason is confined to the world of experience. I’m getting ahead of myself though. Rest assured however, exciting stuff ahead! I wish old Socrates was still here to give me a bit of an earful on all the mistakes and inaccuracies that are likely to creep into my writing though…

So be warned: As with all philosophically-related material on this site, I cannot guarantee its accuracy! That said, I feel it’s the ideas that are most important, so if it gets you thinking in any way, success!


Metaethics is..?

I just realised I don’t even know what ‘meta’ means after all this time learning Philosophy. But just before that, make sure you’ve read the Moral Philosophy Primer to get an idea of where things stand. We won’t be umm-ing and ahh-ing about applied ethics on things like abortion in these lectures.

According to, meta is:

meta philosophy
/me’t*/ or /may’t*/ or (Commonwealth) /mee’t*/ A prefix meaning one level of description higher. If X is some concept then meta-X is data about, or processes operating on, X.
For example, a metasyntax is syntax for specifying syntax, metalanguage is a language used to discuss language, meta-data is data about data, and meta-reasoning is reasoning about reasoning.
This is difficult to explain briefly, but much hacker humour turns on deliberate confusion between meta-levels.

So meta ethics then is, quite simply, ethics talking about ethics. No bloody wonder I was so confused. How can you talk about ethics using ethics? Actually, it seems more likely to be something like the processes behind our ethics. So we’re questioning how we come to use our ethics. This all becomes much clearer when we think of things in terms of first order questions and second order questions:

First-order Questions:
Questions about the world itself. Your simple ‘Is murder wrong’, ‘Is the Mona Lisa a beautiful piece of art?’ or ‘Is plucking the feathers off living pigeons cruel?’ statements. Note that these type of questions don’t have to be related to ethics.

So first-order questions are normative questions. I.e. What is the normal, established behaviour/way of thinking? How ought we to act? In an moral context then, they deal with applied ethics, such as abortion, euthanasia, the environment (etc.). We ask ourselves about the content of morality. ‘What ought we do’? ‘How ought we live our lives? ‘Is it okay to use people as a means to an end’? And ‘is it wrong to pluck pigeon feathers’?

Contrast then, with:

Second-order Questions:
Questions about questions. In ethics, questions about the ethics themselves.

So if we said in response to our first-order question that ‘plucking the feathers off living pigeons is cruel’, our second-order question (our meta-question) will be something like: ‘what do I mean when I say live pigeon-plucking is cruel’? ‘Is my pigeon-plucking statement true or false‘? More importantly, is it objective?

Here we are questioning the processes behind our ethics. Quite simply, we ask questions like ‘how can I know for sure if something is good or bad’? We ask if our statements are true or false; if there are moral ‘facts’ in the world and if there are, whether those facts are objective or not.

This brings us back to an area that I wrote about for my previous course: Realism and Anti-Realism. You can find articles on those here:

Moral Realism
Moral Anti-Realism

I will of course be going into these things again, hopefully in much more detail and, hopefully, with more insight. I now know what ‘meta’ means for a start!

Moral Cognitivism vs. Moral Non-Cognitivism

Metaethics chartThese two views loosely break up the metaethical debate. They sound nasty, but the words themselves hold clues as to their meaning. The fantastic chart is by Antti Kauppinen from St. Andrew’s University in the UK. Use it for a better understanding of how the different positions link together!

Moral Non-Cognitivism: Moral judgements express non-cognitive attitudes towards things. In other words, the judgements we make are based on emotions; they are our personal attitude towards particular things. Hence, because of their very subjective nature, our judgements cannot be true or false (they are not truth-apt). This means that there are no moral facts and thus we cannot have moral knowledge. This view is also known as Moral Expressivism.

Moral Cognitivism: Our moral judgements express beliefs. In these beliefs are what philosophers call propositions – statements which can be true or false (in other words, statements which are truth applicable – ‘truth-apt‘). Because our statements can either be true or false, moral judgements suppose the existence of moral facts. Because of this, we can have moral knowledge.

We can further breakdown Cognitivism into other varieties:

Moral Realism: Moral Realists think that there are such things as objectively exisiting moral facts (moral ‘properties’), and that these facts are independent of our personal opinions, desires and judgements. Because of their belief in moral facts, Moral Realists think that we can have moral knowledge.

Moral Constructivism: Constructivists think that there are moral facts, but in contrast to the realist think that these facts are are mind-dependent. In other words, these facts are dependent on our opinions. Deciding how to act morally would depend on what a rational ‘best’ version of ourself would do in a given set of circumstances. Like the Moral Realist, Moral Constructivists think that moral knowledge is possible.

Moral Error Theory: Error Theorists think that there are no moral facts. They say that, although our talk of morals leads us to think that there are objective moral facts, we are mistaken. Appearances are misleading. So any moral claim which implies the existence of a moral fact is false. Hence, no moral facts means no moral knowledge.

Further still, we can go on to breakdown Moral Realism into different forms:

Moral realism comes in 3 main forms, distinguished by their views
on the nature of moral facts and our epistemic access to them.

Non-naturalism: Moral facts are sui generis (of their own kind),
and consequently our knowledge of them is of a special sort, e.g.
based on intuition.
Naturalism: Moral facts fall into the category of natural facts.
They may or may not be identical with or reducible to natural facts
that can be described in some other, more basic vocabulary. Either
way, moral facts can be known more or less like other natural facts.
Supernaturalism: Moral facts have a supernatural source, such as
the will of God.


And to round up, let’s have some fun considering God. All heard of the Divine Command Theory (DCT)? Yes? Good. But just for those who haven’t, it can be basically written like this:

X is morally wrong if and only if X is commanded by God.

For holders of the DCT, Moral Knowledge is based on revelation (sources such as the Bible, or really real dreams where angels appear and tell us what is right and wrong and when to brush our teeth).

Now, should Nietzsche go and declare God to be dead (oh wait, he did…), everything would be permitted! Anarchy Rulz!

I kid, and hope I haven’t offended anyone too much, but seriously speaking the DCT is a weak argument. Here’s old Socrates to put us right in a dialogue from Plato:

Socrates: What then do we say about holiness, Euthyphro? Surely that it is loved by all the gods, by your account?
Euthypro: Yes.
Socrates: Is it loved because it is holy, or is there some other reason?
Euthyphro: There is no other reason.
Socrates: It is loved then because it is holy, but it is not holy because it is loved?
Euthypro: So it seems.
Socrates: And because the gods love it, it becomes loved by the gods and god-beloved?
Euthypro: Of course.
Socrates: What is loved by the gods is not, then, identical to what is holy,
Euthyphro: nor does holy mean god-beloved, as you maintain; these are distinct things.

So were God to command us to pluck the feathers from pigeons, would it be okay to do so? No no no! Those poor, defenceless pigeons, all bald and flightless. Of course it wouldn’t. So that means that pigeon-plucking is wrong regardless of God’s saying-so. Hence, God must recognise rightness and wrongness independently of Himself. If you’re still having trouble accepting this claim, trying substituting the pigeons for children and the plucking for torture.

“But God wouldn’t command us to do something bad!” I hear you cry out. Why not? Because He is good? So who is judging God to be good now? Is God good because God commands it or because goodness is independent of God? So he labels himself as good?

And so on…


The structure and content of this article are based loosely on the lecture notes of Dr. Pekka Vayrynen at the University of Leeds

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Get the Gakuranman Newsletter!

Greetings, fellow Adventurer!

For a limited time, subscribe free and get:

Just enter your name and email below: