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What is meta-ethics?

'Meta' in Greek means 'beyond' so meta-ethics goes beyond ethical theories, and looks at what is meant by the terms used in ethics. Many people say if we do not properly understand the language, then there's no point in ethical debate.

Meta-ethics is different from normative ethics such as Natural Law, Kant etc; these theories guide our moral behaviour, whilst meta-ethics is about what these theories are saying and what the concepts and terms used mean. 

Key Terms

  • Moral realists: Believe that moral claims should be taken at face value and do have at least some fact. Moral values are real properties of people (good, bad etc) just like rough and smooth may be properties of real objects - they just are
  • Cognitivists: Believe moral statements do express beliefs and they are apt for truth and falsity - objective
  • Non-cognitivists: Believe when someone makes a moral statement they are not saying something that is true or false, then are just expressing their feelings/opinion - subjective 

Meta-ethics looks at what it means to be moral.

Cognitive Theories

Ethical naturalism

All ethical statements are the same as non ethical statements, they can be verified or falsified. E.g. 'Rhys went to the zoo on Saturday' and 'Rhys is a good man' can both be proven true or false if the evidence is looked at, for example eye witness accounts. Once the evidence is seen and judged, for both statements a conclusion can be made as to whether they are false or true. 

Criticisms of ethical naturalism

G.E Moore argued against ethical naturalism and said to claim moral statements can be verified or falsified is committing the naturalistic fallacy. His argument was based on Hume who said "you cannot derive an ought from an is". 
     Moore said we cannot infer from a description of how the world is to how it ought to be. He used the open question argument: 

For any natural property, it makes sense to ask 'Is it good?' and the fact we can even ask this shows that 'good' and 'bad' can't be the names of natural properties as 'rough' and 'smooth' are. For instance, if we claim that happiness is a naturally good thing then asking 'is happiness good?' would make no more sense than asking 'does happiness make people happy?' - but it does. This means we have to conclude that goodness is not a property of happiness. If we say 'Mother Theresa helped the dying' then it's still okay to ask 'was that good?' because people have different opinions. 

Intuitionism - G.E Moore

Moore said that good is a simple, unanalysable property just like a primary colour is. He adapted a version of Utilitarianism, saying that the right acts are those that produce the most good. However unlike pleasure, goodness cannot be defined. 

"Good is good and that is the end of the matter"

Moore said we cannot use our senses to tell whether something is god, but we can


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