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Meta-ethics is the analysis of ethical language. Meta-ethics differs from normative
ethics, which decides which things are good and bad and gives us a guide for moral
behaviour. The theories of Natural Law, Utilitarianism and Kantian Ethics are examples
of normative ethics. Meta-ethics is about normative ethics and tries to make sense of
the term and concepts used. There are two different views on meta-ethics; cognitive
and non-cognitivists.
nitive theories of meta-ethics
· Cognitivism is the view that we can have moral knowledge. People who hold
cognitive theories about ethical language believe that ethical statements are
about facts and can be proved true or false.
· Ethical naturalism is the theory that holds that all ethical statements are the
same as non-ethical ones- they are all factual and can, therefore, be verified or
falsified. For example, the statement "Thomas More was a good man" can both
be proved true or false by looking at evidence such as him being executed for
his beliefs. Ethical naturalism includes Natural law, Utilitarianism and Kantian
Criticisms of ethical naturalism
· In "Principa Ethica", G.E. Moore argued against ethical naturalism and called
the attempt to identify goodness with a natural quality a mistake. He said that
to claim that moral statements can be verified or falsified using evidence is to
commit the naturalistic fallacy.
· He based his argument on David Hume, who thinks that to derive an "ought"
from an "is" logically invalid; "the usual copulations of propositions, is and is
not, I meet with no proposition that is now connected with an ought, or an
ought not. This change is imperceptible, but is however, of the last
consequence" ( Hume, Treatise of Human Nature)
It is important to understand Ethical naturalism, so read over all the
Different ethical theories you did last year.…read more

Slide 2

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Another Cognitive approach is Intuitionalism. In your exam, you will need to about G.E.
Moore, H.A. Prichard and W.D. Ross
G.E. Moore (1873-1958) Principia Ethica
· G.E. Moore said that good is simple, unanalysable property, just as a primary
colour is. For example; we know what "yellow" is and can recognise it whenever
it is seen, but we cannot actually define yellow. Moore adapted a version of
Utilitarianism in that he said the right acts are those that produce the most good,
but he said that goodness cannot be identified with some natural property such
as pleasure; goodness cannot be defined.
· In other words. "if I am asked "what is good?" my answer is that good is good
and that is the end of the matter" Moore said we cannot use our senses to tell
whether something is good, but we can use our "moral intuition" and so we can
still say whether moral statement is true or false. We recognise goodness when
we see it- we just know if something is good.
H.A. Prichard (1871-1947)
· Prichard discusses the moral claim "ought" by saying that no definition can be
given to this word, like Moore's idea about "good", we all recognise its
properties- everyone recognises when we ought to do a certain action, so moral
obligation are obvious. Prichard thought there were two types of thinking-reason
and intuition. Reason looks at the facts of a situation and intuition decides what
to do. In any situation, Prichard thought that intuition would show which
particular action was right and where our moral obligation lay.
· Prichard recognised a problem in his argument, in that people's morals were
different, but responded to this saying the reason was because some people
had developed their moral thinking further than others.
· However, one could argue that Prichard does not explain why, nor does he
attempt to list any fundamental obligations or moral virtues.
To get a higher grade, include quotes, examples and you own opinion on each
theory, as well as criticisms made…read more

Slide 3

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As well as Moore and Prichard, you will need to know about W.D. Ross and
weaknesses of Intuitionism
W.D. Ross (1877-1971)
·Ross agreed with Moore and Prichard in that "right" are as indefinable as "good". He
argues that it was obvious that certain types of actions, which he called prima facie
duties, were right. In particular situation we would come to recognise certain prima
facie duties.
·Ross listen seven classes of prima facie duties in order to understand what qualifies
as one;
1. Duties of fidelity (e.g. promise-
· Ross says when these prima
keeping) facie duties conflict, we must
2. Duties of reparation follow the one we think in the
3. Duties of gratitude situation, and sometimes one
prima facie duty will have to
4. Duties of Justice give away to another- that is
5. Duties of beneficence-helping why Ross called them prima
others facie duties; they are duties at
first sight.
6. Duties of self-improvement
7. Duties of non-maleficence -
not harming others
Weaknesses of this is : One could argue that Ross still does not tell us how
we know what a prima facie duty actually is or how to decide which one to obey
in cases of conflict. It seems that Ross would say that this depends on a
person's moral maturity.
It is important to include all three scholars in your exam and to identify the
weaknesses of Intuitionalism. For more information go to page 168 in the OCR
religious ethics for AS/A2…read more

Slide 4

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Contrastingly, non-cognitivism say that there are no ethical knowledge, because ethical
statements are not statements that can be proved true or false
Emotivism- A.J. Ayer (1910-1989) Language, Truth and Logic
· Emotivists take a completely different view on moral statements and the theory
states that moral statements are just expression of feelings. Emotivism has its
roots in the Vienna Circle ( a group of philosophers in the 1920s who developed
a theory called logical positivism who holds roughly any truth claim must be
tested by sense experience.
· A.J. Ayer states that there are two types of meaningful statements; Analytic
statements (this is where the truth or falsity of the statement can be determined
through logic) and Synthetic statements (the truth or falsity of the statement can
be determined by checking to establish the facts either way. This includes
statements of science, history and ordinary life)
· For A.J.Ayer, ethical statements are not verifiable so are therefore meaningless.
The only way they can be understood is as an expression of feelings.
"The Boo/Hurrah theory"
· The Boo/hurrah theory is sometimes known as Emotivism. For example; by saying
an ethical statement such as "murder is wrong" you are just saying "Boo to murder"
and by saying "giving to charity is good" we are saying "hurrah for giving to charity"
· Or as he put it " the presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to
its factual content"
· Emotivism does show how the ethical statements we make can depend on our
own attitudes, upbringing and feelings, and this can lead emotivism to be criticised
as "simple subjectivism"
· James Rachels criticises Ayer and states " Where morality is concerned, there are
no "Facts" and no one is "right"…read more

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Another key scholar for Emotivism is C.L.,Stevenson
C.L. Stevenson (1908-1979) Ethics and Language
· Stevenson did not use the verification principle, but discussed the motive
meaning of words are both descriptive and emotive, expressing also what we
feel about them. So when an individual is making a moral judgement he is not
only giving vent to his feelings, but he is also trying to influence others' attitudes.
Emotivism connects "caring", "approving", "disapproving" with the very meaning
of the ethical words. This does mean that ethical statements can be based on
emotions; however, these are not merely arbitrary, but rather are based on our
experience of the world and how we want to be
Criticism of emotivism
· When criticising emotivism, it is important to remember that it does not purport to
be an ethical theory, but is simply an analysis of the nature and content of ethical
language. It starts from the basis of logical positivism and so removes any factual
content from the basis of logical positivism and so removes any factual content
from ethical language and does not discuss "ethical facts"
· However, as Rachels points out, moral judgements appeal to reason; there are
not just expressions of feeling. So, whereas the statement "I like orange smarties"
needs no reason, moral judgement do, or else they are arbitrary.
· Lastly, one could suggest that emotivism may be seen as allowing complete
freedom of action on the grounds that everyone's opinion is equally valid and so
everyone can do as they like.
Exam techniques
· When answering a question remember to add critics such as Rachels and use
examples of your own to explain your understand
To get a higher grade, include quotes, examples and you own opinion on each
theory, as well as criticisms made…read more

Slide 6

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Prescriptivism can also be used to respond the weaknesses made from emotivism.
R.M. Hare (1919-2002) "The language or Morals and Freedom and reason
· Both Ayer and Stevenson based their views on the distinction between facts and
values, which Hume had already claimed made it impossible to deduce a
prescriptive statement (an "ought") from a descriptive statement (an "is"). Hare
attacked this distinction and attempted to show that ethical language is
essentially prescriptive; the role of ethical statements is to say what ought to be
done and such prescriptions are moral because they are universal.
· For Hare, Ethical statements are prescriptive which means they do not state
facts and are not true or false, but they express our will or wishes; in other words
they are like imperatives. For example; with the word good, we could state "A
good chair is one that supports your back, is comfortable and fit for purpose" this
means that the word "good" always has a descriptive meaning.
· For example; if you were to say; "Mother Teresa is a good person" means
Hurrah for Mother Teresa, but you should also hurrah for her.
Criticisms of prescriptivism
· If moral judgements are founded on prescriptions, this still does not mean there is
a valid reason for following one person's prescriptions rather than another's. It
does not necessarily mean that morals are universal, as one person's preferences
may be different to another.
· In response to this, Hare admitted that the fanatic who prescribed that all people or
a certain race be exterminated could be making a moral judgement according to
his theory. The only constraint is that one should put oneself "in another's shoes'
before making the judgement and, as the terrorism and suicide bombing of the
twenty-first century show, this does not stop the fanatic
· Prescriptivism says that "ought" judgements are universalisable prescriptive or
imperatives and not truth claims. However this goes against how people approach
ethics in their daily lives
Try answering with all this knowledge; "Ethical language is meaningless" Discuss…read more

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