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In the field of meta-ethics, scholars have identified key problems in the use of ethical language.

What is the meaning and nature of a moral judgement? Are statements descriptive, prescriptive or emotive, or do they correspond to an objective, universal goodness which we attempt to access through moral debates? What does ‘good’ mean?


Cognitivists – moral statements are propositional and therefore deal with verifiable facts

Non-cognitivists – moral statements are non-propositional and therefore subjective.


Propositional – deal with verifiable facts. Either true or false. We can legitimately ask ‘is it true?’

Non-propositional statements are those which are subjective. They cannot be independently proven true or false.




Cognitivists include Ethical Naturalists and Intuitionists, who believe that there is an objective right or wrong, which can be accessed with moral statements.



Ethical Naturalism


R B Perry – good can be reduced to “an object of favourable interest”


Main Ideas


Believe moral statements are propositional. It is possible to test the truth of a moral statement by assessing the evidence. You can use non-ethical, natural language to define ethical positions.


·      Ethical conclusions can be drawn from non-ethical, natural statements.


e.g. Abortion ends the life of a foetus, therefore abortion is wrong.



The Naturalistic Fallacy – G.E. Moore in Principia Ethica argued that it’s impossible to prove a moral statement by empirical observation.


Based on David Hume’s principle that ‘an “ought” cannot be derived from an “is”. Movement from an objective statement of fact to a subjective statement of value is impossible.

An ‘is’ describes the facts of a situations which are morally neutral. They do not directly lead to an ‘ought’ - a moral principle is needed.


1.    Children are starving as a result of famine. (is)

2.    Where there is suffering that can be relieved, it should be relieved. (moral principle)

3.    We ought to do something to help them. (ought)


However you define ‘good’ e.g. greatest happiness for the greatest number (Utilitarianism), it can always be questioned.

People can still have differences of opinion about things.


Ethical naturalists are cognitivists, who believe that moral statements are propositional, and so can be tested by assessing empirical evidence, just like science. Therefore, all ethical statements can be translated into non-ethical ones. In this instance, ‘good’ is objective, and can be verified as either true or false. For example, a utilitarian would define ‘good’ as the greatest happiness for the greatest number, which can be accessed through non-ethical evidence. These hedonistic naturalists, such as R.B. Perry argued that ‘good’ could be reduced to ‘an object of favourable interest’. Alternatively, Thomas Aquinas was a theological naturalist, who maintained that goodness was linked to the will of God.”


“The philosopher G.E. Moore identified a problem with ethical naturalism, in his book ‘Principia Ethica’, based on David Hume’s principle that it is impossible to move from an ‘is’ to


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