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Difference between meta ethics and normative ethics
Meta ethics deals with the nature of ethics and moral reasoning. Essentially, it
examines ethical language such as `good', `ought' and `wrong'. In other words,
what do we mean when we call something `good' or `bad'?
Normative ethics is interested in determining the content of moral behaviour. It
seeks to provide a guide for moral behaviour. In effect, it answers the question
"what ought I do in situation x?" The moral theories of Kant and Bentham are
examples of normative ethics.
The naturalist approach is to treat ethical statements the same as non ethical statement i.e.
as propositions that can be verified or falsified.
E.g. propositions such as "acid turns litmus paper red" can be established using evidence
just as the statement "murder is wrong" can. If we look at the evidence, we see that
generally murder makes people unhappy therefore it is wrong.
Criticisms of ethical naturalism
G. E. Moore in his book `Principa Ethica' says that ethical naturalism makes a fundamental
error moral statements cannot be verified using empirical evidence that is to commit the
naturalistic fallacy. His argument was based on a test he had devised to establish whether
definitions of words were correct or incorrect. The statement "George is a brother, but is he
is a male sibling?" is `closed' because the definition of a brother is a male sibling the
answer is found within the statement. An `open' question on the other hand means that the
definition is not implied and therefore to take the second part of the question as defining the
first part would be incorrect. An example of an open question is "I know George is a
brother but is he a teacher at Oxford?" The question does not carry within itself an
automatic answer. George may well be a brother but this does not imply that he teaches at
Oxford. Moore says that definitions of natural terms proposed by ethical naturalism produce
Naturalism held that ethical terms could be explained in the same `natural' terms as
science or maths. Ethics, they said, was about observation and analysis.
GE Moore, in Principia Ethica (1903) famously refuted naturalism. He said that you
can't move from is to ought. In other words, any observation of how people actually
behave cannot tell us about how people SHOULD behave. He called this the
Moore went on to say that `good' is indefinable. In the same way as yellow is just,
well, yellow, `good' is not a complex term that can be broken down further, you just
recognise that something is good by intuition. If `good' was a complex idea, we
could ask of it whether it was itself good. For example, Bentham defined good as
pleasure (the greatest pleasure for the greatest number). But you can ask "Is
pleasure good?" Because the question makes sense, pleasure can't mean the same
HA Prichard said there were two kinds of thinking: reason brought together the facts
about a situation, and intuition perceived the right thing to do.
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WD Ross argued that moral principles can't be absolute, as they can contradict one another
He said that we have prima facie (at first appearance) duties:
1. keeping promises,
2. making up for harm done,
Intuition identifies our prima facie duties, but when they conflict, we need to
use our own judgment to determine which obligation is our absolute duty.
Intuitionists have failed to agree on what the moral good is which
supposedly is selfevident.…read more
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We simply express our approval or disapproval, so that to say `lying is wrong' is a
bit like saying `boo to lying'.
Ayer claimed, "in saying a certain type of action is right or wrong, I am not making
any factual statement ... I am merely expressing certain moral sentiments."
So, ethics just amounts to our subjective feelings. Often, Ayer's theory is thus called
the `boohurrah' theory of ethics.…read more