Is ethical language meaningless?


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Joshua Elliot Bovill 3rd October 2009
Is ethical language meaningless? Discuss.
Ethical language is meaningless. The analysis of ethical language is called metaethics.
Metaethics looks at the meaning of the language used in ethics and includes questions such
as: are ethical claims capable of being true or false, or are they expressions of emotion? If
true, is that truth only relative to some individual, society or culture. Metaethics is broken
down into cognitive and noncognitive theories. This shows that there are two contrasting
opinions to whether ethical language is meaningless.
Cognitive theories of metaethics. Ethical naturalism is a cognitive theory of metaethics.
Ethical naturalism or ethical cognitivism is the theory that moral values can be derived from
sense experience. Ethical naturalism looks into cognitive and objective statements, it states
ethical and nonethical statements are the same, also that ethical statements can be verified
and falsified. Criticisms of ethical naturalism ­ the naturalistic fallacy. The naturalistic fallacy
is the claim that good cannot be defined. G.E. Moore argued against ethical naturalism and
called the attempt to identify goodness with a natural quality a mistake. He uses the
naturalistic fallacy to do this.
Intuitionism ­ G.E. Moore. Intuitionism is the theory that moral truths are known by intuition.
Moore's intuitionism is a cognitive theory itself. It states good is indefinable, there are
objective moral truths and we know these moral truths by intuitionism.
Intuitionism ­ H.A. Pritchard. Pritchard develops the theory of Intuitionism. Pritchard's
intuitionism states obligations are as indefinable as good, intuition decides what to do in a
situation and some people's intuition is better developed than others.
Noncognitive theories of metaethics. Emotivism is a noncognitive theory of metaethics.
Emotivism is the theory which says that moral statements are just expressions of feelings.
Emotivism A.J. Ayer. Ayers Emotivism states words like `good are meaningless, ethical
statements are just expressions of feelings and ethical statements cannot be validated.
Criticisms of Emotivism. Emotivism can 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, this
can have unfortunate results, for example Hitler.
Prescriptivism is similar to Emotivism. Prescriptivism is the theory that ethical statements
have an intrinsic sense so other people should agree with the statement and follow it. A
prescriptive statement is an `ought', whereas a descriptive statement is an `is'. R.M. Hare
stated 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.


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