Meta Ethics

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Meta Ethics:

Definition: Meta-ethics is the study of how ethical language is used. It looks at what the words mean and it looks at how people use them and how they work. 

The is/ought gap:

  • An 'is' statement is a statement of fact - for example: Kevin killed Perry. 
  • An 'ought' statement is a statement of value - for example: Kevin ought not to have killed Perry. 
  • David Hume argued that one cannot go from a statement of fact to a statement of value without proper explanation: for example it is not enough to say 'The Bible says homosexuality is wrong, therefore homosexuals cannot get married' this is the is/ought gap or fact - value distinction. 
  • People who believe that there are moral facts are called ethical naturalists or cognitivists. Those who follow natural moral law, utilitarians and many who follow religious ethics are ethical naturalists because they define goodness in terms of something non-moral such as the laws of nature, pleasure or the will of God. Naturalists believe that there doesn't need to be a gap between is statements and ought statements. 
  • Those who think that moral statements cannot be reduced to fact and that 'goodness' cannot be defined are known as non-naturalists. G.E. Moore was an ethical non-naturalist. Non-naturalists believe that is statements and ought statements do not go together. Moore called putting is and ought statements together 'the naturalistic fallacy.'

The naturalistic fallacy:

  • This is a form of ethical non-naturalism: it was devised by G.E. Moore.
  • Moore believed that the term 'good' is a simple term (like 'yellow') that cannot be defined. 
  • Moore believed that we cannot prove moral statements.
  • Moore believed that the only way of knowing if something is good or not is through intuition: this makes Moore an ethical intuitionist. 


  • The strength of arguing that values are not facts is that it keeps moral debate open: this statement 'homosexuality is wrong' cannot be verified in the same way as 'Paris is the capital of France.' Non-naturalism forces us to try to defend our moral position which stops us being sloppy moral thinkers who say 'torture is OK because it is.' 
  • However, it is clear that there are some moral statements which are almost universally accepted and seem like facts such as 'the torture of innocent children is wrong.' 
  • If we refuse to accept that there are any moral facts, we are in danger of not being able to condemn any actions which are obviously morally wrong. 
  • A problem with intuitionism is that Moore does not explain where our moral intuitions come from, which reduces morality to guess work. 

Debates about the good:

  • Is goodness objective (like Plato's Forms) or subjective (i.e. it varies from person to person)? 
  • How can we know that something is good? Do we decide it a priori, is it revealed to us or do we look at the consequences of the action like utilitarians?
  • Is goodness known by pleaasure, the will of God, virtue, achieving


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