Meta-ethics

Task: define the following ethics key terms…

  • Deontological Ethics
  • Emotivism
  • Naturalism
  • Hedonism
  • Intuitionism
  • Normative Ethics
  • Prescriptivism
  • Relativist Ethics
  • Subjectivism

We use language without thinking about it as language is arguably an important element of being human. We often use language with little, or no, ambiguity and language is usually relatively straight forward. However, not all language we use is so simple, for instance ‘God’ or ‘eternity’. With these terms, it can seem that the more you try to unpick their meaning, the more complex it becomes.

For instance, the term ‘good’ is a difficult idea to analyse. The term ‘good’ can have many possible meanings.

Sometimes we use the term ‘good’ in a moral sense, and other times in a non moral sense.

Task: Give an example of ‘good’ being used in a moral and a non moral sense.

Our language can be factual, for instance ‘the M1 motorway is 311.4km long’. A fact can be checked and verified. The M1 can be measured and this will verify the validity of the statement of it’s length. This can be agreed easily and checked by anyone who wishes to do so.

However, the same cannot be said for the term ‘good’. It cannot be checked, and often isn’t agreed upon. If I say ‘the class is good’, someone could disagree and say they aren’t good, and even that my methods of deciding that the class is good are wrong. ‘Goodness’ cannot be checked simply. There seems to be no way that this question can be solved.

Things are called good in as many ways as we say they exist. They are called good in the categories of Substance (such as God or mind), in Quality (the virtues), in Quantity (a moderate amount), in Relation (what is useful), in Time (opportunity), in Place (the right habitat for what we want to do) and so on. It is clear there cannot be one universal use.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, vi

Aristotle was highlighting the difficulty in qualifying the meaning of ‘good’, in response to Plato who tried to fix the meaning in a simple and universal way.

We are all able to use the term ‘good’ with some vague meaning, otherwise the term wouldn’t be used at all. The problem is with attributing precision.

Task: Give three other terms which are widely used, with a vague meaning, but cannot be precise.

The issue with meaning and justification is called meta-ethics.

Normative ethics: theories of ethics that give guidance on how we should behave and/or the character traits we should develop

Fact/value, is/ought problem: the problem, identified by Hume, of finding any logical justification of ethical judgements from the facts of the world. We cannot derive what we ought to do from a statement of the facts of the case

The question at hand in meta-ethics is regarding fact and value and is a problem of logic. Logical problems are presented as such:
1. All men are mortal (Major premise)
2. Socrates was a man (Minor premise)
3. Therefore, Socrates is mortal (Conclusion)

The conclusion must be contained within the premises, therefore, you could not conclude:
4. Therefore, Socrates is mortal and a keen follower of the Olympic games.

Look at the conjugation of the verb ‘to be’ above. Any factual preposition uses the verb ‘to be’. For example:

  • Socrates was a philosopher
  • Paris is the capital of France
  • Maturity brings grey hair (Grey hair is brought by maturity)

The verb ‘to be’ does not contain the idea ‘ought’. Hume claims that..

instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not.

He claims that humans make facts about morality and then make a leap to say how we should behave, but that we have no justification for this jump.

Hume is pointing out that factual statements and moral statements are of a different
kind. There are two points we can make here:

  1. Hume’s argument is an argument about the missing premise. He is saying
    people move too quickly from a descriptive statement ‘this is causing me pain’
    to a normative statement ‘this is wrong’ without establishing hat is wrong about
    pain. The two statements are essentially different.
  2. Hume’s argument is about moral motivation. Hume points out that we need
    to explain what is obligatory in an ‘ought statement’ as these statements are
    action-guiding. Ought statements have power ‘to cause or prevent actions’.
    But says Hume, it is our feelings and desires which provide the motivation. So
    for Hume the missing premise is to say ‘I don’t want to be hurt’ – this is what
    makes pain morally ‘wrong’.

What is a “moral ought?”

The is/ought gap doesn’t seem like a problem unless we are dealing with what “morally ought” to be the case. For example, if you tell a person that it’s morally wrong to put arsenic in someone else’s food. There’s no consensus about what distinguishes a moral ought from a nonmoral ought, but there are many common assumptions that we seem to have about them. For example:

  1. We ought not do something if it’s morally wrong.
  2. It’s morally wrong to kill people indiscriminately.
  3. All things equal, it’s morally right to save people’s lives.
  4. If someone does something very morally wrong, like killing people indiscriminately, then that person should be blamed for the action and should be punished for it.
  5. What we morally ought to do overrides our nonmoral obligations.
  6. I morally ought to save the life of a small child when doing so is at little cost to myself, even if I will then fail to meet my friend for lunch on time after promising to do so.
  7. What I morally ought not do isn’t changed by wanting to do it. For example, I morally ought not to kill people indiscriminately, even if I want to do it.
  8. We can be wrong about what we ought to do (or ought not do). A person can think that killing people indiscriminately isn’t wrong, but that belief would be false.
  9. People often argue about what we morally ought to do, and we can disagree about what we should belief regarding morality.
  10. Some moral beliefs are more justified than others. It seems irrational to believe that it’s never wrong to indiscriminately kill people, and such a belief seems unjustified. In contrast, the belief that it is wrong to kill people indiscriminately seems justified.
  11. Some actions are good, but they aren’t obligations. For example, it’s good to save a child from a burning building, but it’s often too dangerous to be morally required of us.
  12. We should be moral, even if we aren’t motivated by external rewards or punishments. For example, dying to protect one’s friends from a grizzly bear is sometimes morally right, even though it leads to the ultimate personal sacrifice.

Task: Do you agree with the statements above? Are there any you disagree with?

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