Meta Ethics

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  • Created by: Chantal
  • Created on: 04-04-14 13:09

Meta Ethics

  • The word meta= ‘above’ or ‘beyond’
  • Looks at what is meant by the terms used in ethics
  • Differs from normative ethics (which decides which things are good and bad and gives us a guide for moral behaviour)
  • For many people ethical language is about facts which are right or wrong
  • Cognitivists:
    • Moral statements describe the world
    • Statements are objectively either true or false
    • Things are good or bad independently of us
  • Non- Cognitivists:
    • Moral statements express feeling or tell people what to do
    • Statements are subjective
    • Moral statements are not descriptive and cannot be described as true or false
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Cognitivists: Ethical Naturalism

  • Ethical statements are the same as non ethical ones (natural)- they are all factual and can be verified/ falsified
  • Cognitive and objective
  • Ethical and non-ethical statement are the same
  • Ethical statements can be verified and falsified
  • Eg:
    • ‘Thomas Moore was executed for his beliefs’ and ‘Thomas Moore was a good man’ can both be proved true/ false
    • The first statement is factual and can be determined by looking at eye witness accounts, death certificate etc
    • The second can be proven by established  if Moore, in his personal behaviour, was good etc and if his actions caused good consequences


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Cognitivists: Ethical Naturalism: Criticisms

  • G E Moore called the attempt to identify goodness with a natural quality a mistake
  • To claim moral statements can be verified or falsified using evidence is to commit the naturalistic fallacy
  • Moore based his argument on David Hume who thinks that to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ is logically invalid:
    • We cannot infer from a description of how the world is to how the world ought to be
  • If we claim happiness is naturally good we could always ask ‘is happiness good?’ but if happiness is naturally good this question would make no more sense than asking ‘des happiness make people happy’- goodness in not a property of happiness
  • Moving from a actual objective statement to an ethical statement of values does not work because it leaves an open question that has not been answered
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Cognitivists: Intuitionism: G E Moore

  • Good is a simple, unanalysable property, just as a primary colour is
  • Goodness cannot be identified with some natural property such as pleasure
  • 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
  • Goodness is a ‘simple notion’
  • Just as we cannot explain what ‘yellow’ is by means of definition but only by showing someone an example, likewise we can only explain what goodness is
  • Good is indefinable
  • There are objective moral truths
  • We know these moral truths by intuition


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Cognitivists: Intuitionism: Prichard

  • Discussed the moral claim ‘ought’ by stating no definition can be given to this word- like Moore’s idea about ‘good’- everyone recognises when we ought to do an action, so moral obligations are obvious
  • Two types of thinking= reason and intuition:
    • Reason looks at the facts of a situation
    • Intuition decides what to do and shows which action is right and where our moral obligation lies
  • Recognised the problem that people’s morals were different and said this was because some people had developed their moral thinking further than others
  • When there is a conflict in obligations we must look at the situation and decide which is greater
  • Obligations are as indefinable as goodness
  • Intuition decides what to do in a situation
  • Some people’s intuition is better developed than others
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Cognitivists: Intuitionism: Ross

  • Developed Prichard’s intuitionism
  • Agreed with Moore and Prichard that ‘good’ and ‘right’ and ‘obligatory’ are indefinable
  • Deontologist arguing that it was obvious certain types of actions- prima facie duties- were right
  • In any situation we would recognise prima facie duties:
    • Duties of fidelity (promise keeping)
    • Duties of gratitude
  • When these prima facie duties conflict, we must follow the one we think is right in the situation- one prima facie duty will give way to another
  • Ross 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- depends in moral maturity
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Cognitivist: Intuisionism: Crticisms

  • The idea of knowing what is good by intuition and not by empirical evidence is not proved – Moore states either you agree with him or you have not thought about it properly
  • How can we be sure that intuitions are correct- people may come to different conclusions
  • We can never know which intuition is true or false as we do not all recognise goodness intuitively in the same way
  • Moral intuitions come largely from social conditioning and differ between cultures, so it is hard to see how such intuitions can be a reliable guide
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Non Cognitivist: Emotivism:

  • A J Ayer stated ‘ethical terms do not serve only to express feeling. They are calculated to arouse feeling, and so to stimulate action’
  • When we talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ we are expressing emotional states of approval and disapproval- any other interpretation is meaningless
  • Must be tested by sense experience (verification principle)
  • There are only 2 kinds of meaningful statement-
    • Analytic= truth determined by understanding the terms
    • Synthetic= truth determined by checking through senses
  • Ethical statements are not verifiable- no empirical facts- so they are meaningless
  • Only way ethical statements can be understood is as an expression of feelings
  • Nick- named as boo/hurrah theory
  • Ethical statements we make can depend on our attitudes, upbringing and feelings
  • Does not argue ethical statements have no factual content, he does not believe they have no meaningful function
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Non Cognitivist: Emotivism: Stevenson

  • Gave a more detailed version of emotivism
  • Moral terms are both descriptive and emotive, expressing also what we feel about them
  • When an individual is making a moral judgment he is not only giving vent to his feelings but he is also trying to influence others attitudes
  • Ethical statements are based on emotions- they are not arbitrary but are based on our experience of the world and how we want it to be
  • Ethical statements are attitudes based on beliefs about the world
  • Ethical statements are attempts to influence the views of others
  • Ethical statements are subjective opinions
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Non Cognitivist: Emotivism: Criticisms

  • James Rachels points out moral judgements appeals to reason; they are not just expressions of feelings- there is a risk of there being no facts, no one is ‘right’
  • It has been shown in history that stimulating people to act has led to some unfortunate events eg Hitler
  • May be seen as allowing complete freedom of action on the grounds that everyone’s opinion s equally valid
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Non Cognitivism: Prescriptivism: Hare

  • Role of ethical statements is to say what ought to be done and such prescriptions are moral because they are universal
  • Ethical statements not facts but they express our will or wishes- like imperatives
  • When we use the word ‘good’ we always do so in relation to a set of standards:
    • A good chair supports your back, is comfortable and fit for the purpose
    • A good car again varies, depending on whether it is a family car or a sports car
    •  A good person is someone we should try to emulate
    • Therefore the word good has a descriptive meaning
  • If we use ‘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 action so the ‘good’ has a prescriptive meaning:
    • Eg ‘stealing is wrong’ really means ‘you ought not to steal and neither will I’
  • Prescriptivism holds that, to achieve consistency in moral judgements, when we say that someone else ought to do something, we ought to as well
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Non Cognitivist: Prescriptivism: Hare

  • There is no valid reason for following one persons prescription over another
  • Morals are not universal as one persons preferences may be different to another
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