Meta Ethics

Revision cards on the main ideas of meta ethics including the strengths and weaknesses of the approach

  • Created by: Georgia B
  • Created on: 01-06-13 15:00

What is Meta-Ethics?

What is meta-ethics? 


The discussion about the nature of ethical statements and whether they are useful and valid.

Meta-ethics analyses ethical language and seeks to understand the meaning of moral judgements.

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Normative Ethics
- Theories on how we OUGHT to behave

Meta Ethics

- Analysis of ethical language. E.g. That is wrong, that is good.

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Fact or Fiction?

Cognitivists vs Non-cognitivists

Cognitivists believe that ethical language can have true meaning. They believe that words can be meaningful because they have a factual basis.

Non-Cognitivists believe that ethical language cannot have a true meaning. They believe that words cannot be meaningful because they are not subject to being true or false.

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Right and wrong are...

Observable facts

Objectively true or false. Independant of humans.

This means they are Cognitive.

Ethical Naturalism

Ethical statements can be proved true or false


G.E Moore: Cannot derive how the world ought to be from how it is. We intuitively know what good is but we cannot define it.

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Right and wrong are...

Based on feeling and emotions

Telling people what to do. It is subjective.

And Non-cognitive


A.J Ayer: Expressions of feelings to stimulate action


R.M Hare: Not just our feelings to stimulate action but should be universal, we should all act the same.

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Good is something that can be defined and it has a real existence.

Good is something provable, using empirical evidence( anythign that is proved using the 5 senses)

We can say that things are factually accurate using empirical evidence and data.

If we say "GOD IS GOOD" then we will look for evidence of God's purposes in the natural world.

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Good is something that cannot be be defined using any type of natural experience.

G.E Moore: Good is not a word that can be defined using a simpler word. He compared it to giving a definition of colour. The only way to understand goodness is to provide an example to illustrate it.

Moore believed that ethical language is made up of propositions that may be made true by observable features of the world.

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Moore: We understand baisc moral principles using our intuition. We recognise good when we see it- we just know what is good.

Pritchard: Developed Moore's idea. In the same way that goodness is recognised by example, so are our observation. We always know when to do a certain act. Everone has a different moral intuition.

W.D Ross: built up upon this. He believed that a set of basic moral princples are prima facie (at first appearance). Our moral obligations are apparent and must be followed unless there is another greater obligation. We must obey the greater prima facie duty.

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A.J Ayer: Ethical statements are just an expression of emotion.

Statements are presenting preferences and envincing emotions. This approach is sometimes called the 'boo-hurrah' theory.

C.L Stevenson: it is easy to use words like 'honesty' in a descriptive sense, however, it also has an emotive meaning that aims to influence other people.

Ethical statemetns are subjective opinions that influence the views of others.

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R.M Hare said moral statements were more than just expressions of emotions. They infact are suggesting other people should apply the same value as them.

Ethical language is intrinsically prescriptive and implies what ought to be done. Everyone should take the same course of action.

There is more to moral statements than expressing ideas or outlining behaviours. Statements commands behaviour and guides action.

His approach doesn't state facts, prescriptivism is a way or expressing wishes and beliefs.

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Crisicisms- Cognitive


  • 'naturalistic fallacy'. People cannot be talking about moral facts then switch into talking about moral values.
  • what we ought to do cannot be based on the facts of what 'is'


  • can it really provide a cognitivist answer?
  • the inbuilt moral sense is never fully explained or verified.
  • Moore was quite dogmatic about his approach.
  • makes ethical discussion very difficult.
  • how do we know which intuition is correct.
  • We percieve things in different ways.
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Criticisms- Non-Cognitive


  • How do we know anything at all if everything is about how we feel?
  • James Rachels claims that Ayer and Stevensom are incorrect as there is so much more to statements than just expressions of feelings or desires.
  • Emotivism would claim that moral statements concerning 9/11 would be classed as subjective personal feelings.


  • Mackie said that morals are not universal.
  • Everyones preferences are different.
  • What about peoples culture and religious differences.
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Possible Exam Questions

  • Discuss the strengths and weaknesses of emotivism (33 marks)
  • Do ethical statements have any meaning? (33 marks)
  • Ethical language is meaningless. Discuss (33 marks)
  • Ethical statements are no more than expressions of emotion. Discuss (33 marks)
  • To what extent do moral statements have objective meaning (33 marks)
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