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  • Created on: 15-09-13 20:34

What is Meta-Ethics?

  • 'Meta' in Greek means 'above' or 'beyond' - therefore meta-ethics goes further than ethical theories to look at what is meant by the terms used in ethics.
  • Meta-ethics differs from normative ethics, which decides which things are good and bad and gives us a guide for moral behaviour.
  • Examples of noramtive ethics are; Natural Law, Utilitarianism and Kantian Ethics.
  • For many people ethical language is about facts which are either right or wrong. 
  • However, this may need to be qualified as ethical language in expressing moral facts about the world is also interconnected with beliefs and feeling which often come before.
  • Ethical statements are not just about observable facts, but are often statements about what we believe should happen and so are not very easy to establish as true of false, as they may be expressions of points of view that are not shared by everyone.
  • Words such as 'good', 'bad', 'right' etc. are used in everyday life and this causes a probelm as they are oftenly used to express opinions.
  • Moral realists hold that moral facts are objective facts are are out there in the world.
  • Moral values, such as kind and wicked, are real properties of people in the same way that rough and smooth are properties of physical objects. This view is related to cognitive language.
  • Cognitivists believe that moral statements describe the world.
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  • According to non-cognitivists, when someone makes a moral statement they are not describing the world, but expressing their feelings or telling people what to do.
  • As non-cognitivists say that moral statements are not descriptive, they cannot be described as ture or false - they are subjective.
  • Meta-ethics is not concerned with what the right or wrong action is in a particular circumstance, but with what it means to be moral. 

Cognitive 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.
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Ethical Naturalism

  • This theory hold that all ethical statements are the same as non-ethical (natural) ones - they are all factual and can, therefore, be verified or falsified.
  • 'Thomas More was executed for his beliefs in 1535' and 'Thomas More was a good man' can both be proved true or false by looking at the evidence.
  • The first statement is factual, and can be determined by looking at evidence: eyewitness accounts, death certificates etc.
  • The ethical naturalism would claim that we can do the same for the second statement by establishing if, in his personal behaviour, Thomas More was good, kind, unselfish, caring: or by looking at whether his actions aand good consequences.
  • If there was supporting evidence we can conclude that 'Thomas More was a good man' and, if not, then the statment is false.
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  • In Principa Ethica (1903) 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 Davide Hume, who thinks that to derive an 'ought' from an 'is' is logically invalid.
  • He says we cannot infer from a description of how the world is to how the world ought to be.
  • Moores used the 'open question argument'.
  • For any natural property, it always makes sense to ask 'Is it good?' and since we can ask these questions, it shows that 'good' and 'bad' cannot be the names of natural properties in the way that 'rough' and 'smooth' are. 
  • Moore did not believe there were moral properties and his response to this difficulty was to say that goodness is a 'non-natural' property which is indefinable.
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Intuitionism - G.E.Moore

Intuitionism - G.E.Moore

  • G.E. Moore said that good is a simple, unanalysable property.
  • Moore adapted a version of utilitariansim in that he sad that right acts are those that produce the most, but he said that goodness cannot be identified with some natural property such as pleasure: goodness cannot be defined. 
  • Moore said that 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 a moral statement is true or false.
  • We recognise goodness when we see it - we just know if something is good.
  • Moore called this a 'simple notion' and explained it by saying it is like trying to define the colour yellow.
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Intuitionism - G.E.Moore

Moore's Intuitionism

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Intuitionism - H.A. Prichard

  • Prichard discusses the moral claim 'ought' by saying that no definition can be given to this word, but we all recognise it's properties - everyone recognises when we ought to do a certain action, so moral obligations are obvious.
  • Prichard thought there were two types of thinking - reason and intuition. 
  • Reason looks at facts.
  • Prichard thought that intuition would show which particular action was right and where our moral obligations lay.
  • He recognised the problem that people's morals were different, but said this was because some people had not developed their moral attempt to list any fundamental obligations or moral virtues.
  • Where there is a conflict of obligations we have to see which one is greater. however Prichard states that not everyone could use this to prove goodness.
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Intuitionism - W.D. Ross

  • Ross agreed that 'right' and 'obligatory' are as indefinable as 'good', he was a deontologist, arguing that it was obvious that certain types of actions, which he called prima facie duties, were right.
  • Ross listed seven classes of prima facie duties:

1. duties of fidelity (e.g. promise keeping)
2. duties or reparation - when we have done something wrong
3. duties of gratitude
4. duties of justice
5. duties of beneficence - helping others
6. duties of self-improvement
7. duties of non-maleficence - not harming others.

  • Ross says that when the prima facie duties conflict, we must follow the one we think is right in the situation, and sometimes one prima facie duty will have to give way to another - that is why Ross called them prima facie duties: they are duties at first sight.
  • Ross, however, 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. 
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Ross's intuitionism

Ross's Intuitionism

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Criticisms of intuitionism

  • The idea of knowing what good is by intuition and not by any empircal evidence is not proved conclusively by Moore - he says you either agree with him or you have not thought about it properly.
  • However, it would seem that if the naturalistic fallacy shows that you cannot infer value judgements from natural facts by means of evidence obtained through the senses, then the introduction of 'non-natural' facts and special 'intuition' simply shoruds the whole issue mystery.
  • Some ethicists say it is our emotions and practical wisdom that give us this intuitive knowledge.
  • How can we be sure that intuitions are correct, since people may come to different conclusions, whether using intuition or reason to reach their discussions.
  • We can never know which intuition is very true or false, as we do not all recognise goodness intuitively in the same way.
  • Moral intuitions seem to come largely from social conditioning and differ between cultures, so it is hard to see how such intuitions can be a reliable guide to objective ethical truths.
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Non-Cognitive theories of Meta-Ethics

  • Non-cognitivism says that there is no ethical knowledge, because ethical statements are not statements that can be proved true or false.

Emotivism - A.J. Ayer

  • Emotivists take a different view on moral statments and start from the premise that there is no ethical knowledge because ethical judgements are not the kinds of statments that can be true or false.
  • Emotivism helps us to understan moral statements.
  • Ayer said: 'ethical terms do not serve only to express feelings. They are calculated also to arouse feeling, and so to stimulate action.'
  • When we talk about 'good' or 'bad' we are expressing emotional states of approval and disapproval.
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  • Any other ethical statements is meaningless.
  • Emotivism has its roots in the Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers in the 1920s who developed a theory called logical positivism which holds roughly that any truth claim must be tested by sense experience, so they are not genuine truth claims and can only express feelings. 
  • He stated there were two kinds of meaningful statements:

1. Analytic Statements - the truth or falsity of the statement that can be determined simply by understanding the terms that occur in them.

2. Synthetic Statements - the truth or falsity of the statement can be determined by checking to establish the facts either way.

  • Ethical statements are not verificable - there are no empirical facts which can be checked to see if any ethical statement is true or false - so they are meaningless.
  • The only way they can be understood is as an expression of feelings.
  • Ayer's theory of ethical language is known as emotivism, as it is simply known as the Boo/Hurrah theory.
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  • Emotivism does show how 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 said that it can lead to the notion that: 'where morality is concerned, there are no 'facts' and no one is 'right'.
  • However, although Ayer does argue that ethical statements have no factual content, he does not believe they have no meaningful function.
  • Emotivism cannot be compared to normative ethical theories, and it does not give any reason why one person's feelings should stimulate a person to action rather than those of another person.
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Emotivism - C.L. Stevenson

  • Gave a more detailed version of emotivism in his book Ethics and Language (1944).
  • He did not use the verification principle, but discussed the emotive meaning of words - many moral terms 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, he is also trying to influence other peoples attitudes.
  • Emotivism connects 'caring', 'approving', 'disapproving' with the very meaning of the ethical words.
  • This does not mean that ethical statements are based on our experience of the world and how we want it to be.
  • Stephenson saw ethical statements as not only expressions of emotion, but also the result of attitudes based on fundamental beliefs, ethical disagreements between people are disagreements about fundamental principles.
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Criticisms of Emotivism

  • Emotivism does not claim to be an ethical theory, it 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 ethical language and does not discuss 'ethical facts'.
  • Rachels states that moral judgements appeal to reason; they are not just expressions of feeling.
  • Ayer does not suggest that ethical statements are more than simply expressions of feeling, but that they have the intention to stimulate others to act in the way they feel is right.
  • Stevenson asks why shoud one person's feelings about a matter be any better than those of another?
  • Emotivism may be sen as allowing complete freedom of action on the grounds that everyone's opinion is equally valid and so everyone can do as they like.
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Prescriptivism - R.M. Hare

Prescriptivism - R.M. Hare

  • Both Ayer and Stevenson based their veiws on the distinction between facts and values, which Hume had already claimed made it impossible to deduce a prescriptive statement from a descriptive statement.
  • 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.
  • Hare argues that universal prescriptivism gives a better account of the nature of ethical statements than naturalist, intuitionist or emotivist meta-ethical theories.
  • Hare says that although these approaches are useful, universal prescriptivism is superior.
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  • It says you 'ought' to do this, and means that everyone should do the same in similar situations.
  • Ethical statements are prescriptive, which means they do not state facts and are not true or false, but they express our will or wishes.
  • The word 'good' has a descriptive meaning according to Hare. If we use the word 'good' in a moral sense, we are using a set of standards that apply to a person or an action and we commend that person or that action.
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Criticisms of Prescriptivism

  • Prescriptivism says that 'ought' judgements are universalisable prescriptives or imperatives and not truth claims - they are not objective and there is no moral knowledge or moral truth.
  • This goes against the way people approach ethics in their daily lives - in general people do think it is wrong to steal, lie, kill etc.
  • According to Hare, we could just as easily choose the opposite if we wished and we could change our moral principles as we choose or as our circumstances alter.
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