Meta-ethical Theories

  • Created by: amyquince
  • Created on: 06-06-19 15:14


- NATURALISM - the idea that moral values can be correctly defined by obersavtion of the natural world

- MORAL REALISM - the belief that right and wrong actuall exists; they are real properties

- COGNITIVISM - the belief that moral statements are subject to being either true or false

- naturalists believe that ethical terms are meaningful

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- there are different versions of ethical naturalism, but all have the idea in common that moral values canbe defined and discovered by some aspect of the world around us. they are known empirically.

- AQUINAS - (natural law) would hold to a theological naturalism. the world has a god-given order built into it. moral values can be worked out by understanding our god-given purpose and observing the natural order. 

- F. H. BRADLEY - argued that it is possible to understand our moral duties by observing out position or station in life. although to some extent this is outdated and has a hint of victorian class divisions, it could be argued that certain roles eg. nurse do seem to have more moral duties attached to them

- BENTHAM AND MILL - utilitarian thinkers argue that we can discover right and wrong by discovering what actions lead to pleasure a pain. by observing that stabbing someone causes them pain, we can infer that this action is wrong.

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- Ethical naturalism links very strongly to the idea of absolutism; however, they are not necessarily the same thing. 

- one way of arguing for ethical naturalism is to use the thinking of Natural Law, the moral values that we discover when we consider purpose do indeed create absolute rules. 

- equally there could be a utilitarian form or naturalism. however, if a thinker believes that right and wrong are linked to pleasure and pain, there may be more relative moral truths discovered. 

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- David Hume

- fact-value distinction or 'is-ought' problem

- when we consider an action such as murder we can describe the facts empirically - using statements involving the word 'is' - but we then move towards more moral claims involving 'ought' and 'ought not'.

- hume suggests that no matter how closely we examine the situation itself we will not be able to empirically see or hear the 'wrongness' of such an action

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- the idea that moral truths are indefinable and self-evident.

- moral truths cant be discovered by observation of the world

- right and wrong not able to be defined but are self-evident - able to know them by our intuition

- moral realist theory - moral facts or truths do exist and is also cognitivist

- like naturalists, believe that ethical terms are meaningful

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- moore identifies naturalistic fallacy (the idea that it is a mistake to define moral terms with reference to other non-moral or natural terms) as the key error that naturalism makes. for any natural property - for example, pleasure - we can still ask the question, 'is pleasure really good?' the fact is that it is possible to answer 'no' shows that pleasure (and other natural properties) are not the same as 'good'.

- we dont recognise goodness through empirical facts; the 'good' is self-evident to our intuition.

- moore uses the analogy with the colour yellow to explain how this intuition might work. if we were asked to describe yellow or present an argument that an object was yellow we would find the task difficult. we only answer the question 'what is yellow?' by pointing to an object that is yellow. we are similarly able to recognise goodness. it cannot be defined but it can be shown or known. 

- moore explains the difference between simple and complex ideas: complex ideas - for example a horse - are ideas that can be broken down into parts; the head, neck, legs etc. simple ideas such as the colour yellow cannot be divided into parts. moore states that goodness is a simple idea and simple ideas are grasped by intuition.

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- takes Humes 'is-ought' challenge seriously

- there is a widespread agreement on moral intuitions

- defends the existence of moral facts


- people can have different intuitions on a topic

- it is not clear what this strange phenomenon of 'intuition' is

- idea of an extra ability that is not able to be analysed by the senses seems far fetched.

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- the idea that moral statements are not statements of fact, but are indicators of emotional states. 

- believes that there are no moral truths; moral statements are based on feelings or approval or disapproval. 

- anti-realist theory, believing that there are no moral facts

- non-cognitivist theory - statements made about right or wrong are not subject to truth or falsity

- ethical statements are meaningless

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- background of emotivism found in the work of logical positivists and philosophy of Hume

- verification principle put forward by logical positivists suggests that statements are only meaningful if (1) they are analytic statements (true by definition) or (2) they are synthetic statements that are verified by the senses.

- hume had previously argued that moral judgements were feelings or sentiments rather than factual judegments

- when we observe the facts of a situation we are unable to see the rightness or the wrongness

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- agreed with the logical positivists on the verification principle

- his weak version of it says that we should only view statements as meaningful if we can say how we could verifiy them

- as moral statements are neither logical nor provable by the senses then this means that they are factually meaningless

- argues that it is important to look at what ethical statements are for rather than look for 'meaning' 

- means we need to look at how speakers use the words 'right' or 'wrong' 

- ethical statements show emotional states or feelings about issues

- words like 'right' or 'wrong' dont add anything just show an approving or disapproving tone.

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- uses the term to explain how ethical statements may show an emotional state

- does not mean quite the same thing as expressing an emotional state, Ayer points out that we may or may not actually feel the emotion that our words indicate. 

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following arguments apply to both naturalism and intuitionism:

- SHARED MORAL VALUES - supporters of moral realism point to the broad agreement on moral values. almost everyone would argue that **** and unrpovoked killing is wrong , our agreement suggests that it is not just a matter of opinion. However, it is possible to suggest that the glass is half empty rather than half full. there is a difference of opinion associated with some issues such as abortion.

- MORAL PROGRESS - we have made a considerable progress in our attitide to topic such as slavery and racism. implies that our ethical language does describe real things. if there is no such thing as right or wrong then it would be impossible to talk about moral progress. 

- THE NEED FOR STANDARD - if there is no objective right and wrong then there can be no absolute standards. beliefs may change like the beliefs associated with racism and slavery. 

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- some naturalists rely on the idea of there being a purpose or telos built into the universe. this is challenged by various thinkers, including evolutionists and existentialists, who reject idea of purpose. 

- Hume identifies the gap between factual 'is' statements and and value judgements 'ought' and 'ought not'. Moral judgements are primarily a matter of emotion, nothing factual can be observed that leads to ideas of right and wrong.

- Moores shows that there is naturalistic fallacy, particularly if we claim that pleasure is good. 

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- advantage of intuitionism over naturalism is that it seems to avoid problems such as is-ought gap and the naturalistic fallacy, yet still presents morality as objective.

- one difficulty with intuitionism is that people's intuitions often seem to differ - this difficulty is given by Pritchard, is that some people have better intuition than others.

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- in suggesting that language may be subjective and meaningless, we are claiming that our language is not describing real facts when we use the terms 'good', 'bad', 'right' and 'wrong'.

- instead, it is merely reflecting what is in our minds, rather than describing the world. 

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- MORAL PROGRESS - it is difficult for those who do not believe in moral values to properly explain moral progress.

- THE NEED FOR STANDARD - for emotivists and other anti-realists, the lack of overall standard is a problem. they attempt to answer this by appealing to the good sense of human beings; although there is no objective and absolute right and wrong, we are able to have subjective agreement on what good moral standards are

- If morality is subjective snd no based on facts then the difficulties of the naturalistic fallacy and this is-ought gap are avoided. 

- TRIVIALISATION - theories such as emotivism which argue that ethics is subjectvie and meaningless trvialise ethics. if morality is just personal preference the 'i dont like killing' becomes no more important than 'prefer the red sweets'.

- NO DISCUSSION - a key criticism of emotivism is that it prevents intelligent a reasoned discussion. For example, our discussion of an issue such as an abortion is reduced to a shouting match of 'abortion boo' vs 'abortion hurray' 

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- R. M. HARE - argues that when we make moral statements we are not just expressing feelings, we are prescribing those views to others. to say that 'killing is wrong' is to effectively say 'i do not approve of killing and you should not do so either'.

- in making moral statements, we are attempting to give imperatives to others. 

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- J. L. MACKIE - argues that there are no moal facts, merely subjective values. 

- However, when we make moral statements, we speak as though statements we make are actually true or false.

- we are in error

- a belief in objective values is built into moral language, but this belief is false. 

- within everyday life, we assume and speak in terms of moral facts, yet when viewed objectively from the outside these facts do not exist. 

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- if we are unclear on what goodness is, it is difficult to build normative theories on how we should act.

- the word 'good' may mean very different things. if each mean something different by the word eg: pleasure, an intuition or a feeling, then practical discussions in ethics become tricky. 

- adressing what goodness is also affects our moral motivations. if i believe the universe has god-given standards of goodness then i will be more inclinded to be good than if i think that goodness is just a subjective idea. 

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- the meta-ethical question on what goodness is, is a remote and complex question. there seems to be little agreement on what the answer might be. it seems to bear little relation to the practical issues in ethics.

- regardless of whether we answer the question on what goodness is, we are not excused from the practicalities of needing to make ethical decisions about the issues we face. 'what shall i do?' seems a far more pressing question and this would point us towards theories such as utilitarianism or kantian ethics rather than meta-ethics. 

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