Metaethical Views

“Metaethics is defined as that branch of philosophy that analyzes the meaning of certain moral terms (right, wrong, good, bad, ought, worth, and so forth). Certain moral statements make reference to persons or actions. With regard to persons, one might affirm the moral statement “Persons ought to be treated as ends in themselves” or “Persons have intrinsic value and dignity.” With regard to actions, one might affirm that “The act of loving your neighbor is morally right” or “Murder is wrong.” In general, many moral statements are of this form: “X is right (or wrong). X has value (or fails to have value).

The major options in metaethics can be summarized as follows:

I. Noncognitivist Theories

A. Emotivism
B. Imperativalism/Prescriptivism

II. Cognitivist Theories
A. Subjectivist Theories

  1. Private Subjectivism
  2. Cultural Relativism

B. Objectivist Theories

  1. Ethical Naturalism
  2. Ethical Nonnaturalism

Noncognitivism denies that moral statements “(e.g., “X is right”) are indicative statements that can be either true or false. Consider the statement “The apple is red.” This is an indicative statement. It asserts an alleged fact which has ontological implications. It asserts that there is an apple that exists and has an existent property, redness, in it. So indicative statements have ontological implications. Furthermore, they can be either true or false. In this case, if the apple really is red, the statement is true. If the apple were green, it would be false. So indicative statements are cognitive in the sense that they can be either true or false, and they have ontological implications because they assert that some state of affairs obtains in the world.

Noncognitivist theories of moral statements, however, deny that moral statements are either true or false and that moral statements have ontological implications. Emotivists hold that the meaning of moral statements consists in the expression of emotions: “X is right” really means “Hurrah for x!” Statements like “X is wrong” really means “Ugh! x!” For example, when someone says that murder is wrong, emotivists hold that the person is merely expressing the feeling “Ugh! I hate murder!”

Imperativalism/prescriptivism agrees with emotivists that moral statements are not indicative statements of fact. But they do not think that moral statements are expressions of feeling. Rather, they hold that moral statements are merely moral commands whose sole function is to guide action. “X is right” is merely the command “Do x!”

“Noncognitivist theories of moral statements fail to do justice to the nature of morality. At least three objections can be raised against both views.

First, moral judgments can occur in the absence of feelings or in the absence of commands, and some expressions of feelings or some commands are not moral judgments. For example, one can form the judgment “Killing rats is wrong” without feeling or commanding anything. But if a moral judgment is just an expression of a feeling or the issuing of a command, then it would be impossible to have a moral judgment without feeling or without commanding. Feelings and commands may be a part of a general theory of morality, but they do not exhaust the nature of morality. Similiarly, someone can express a feeling when he stubs his toe on a table (Ugh! I hate tables!), but this expression is not a moral judgment. So moral judgments can occur without feelings or commands and vice versa…

Second, emotivism and imperativalism imply that there is no such thing as moral education (since there is no cognitive information to learn) and there is no such thing as moral disagreement. Consider two people who appear to be having a moral disagreement about abortion. Person A says “Abortion is right,” and person B says “Abortion is wrong.” Emotivists analyze statements such that A is saying “Hurrah! I (A) love abortion!” and B is saying, “Ugh! I (B) hate abortion!” According to emotivist (and imperativist) translations of the statements, there is no disagreement occuring, since neither person is making a factual claim that could be true or false. Disagreements occur when one person asserts that some claim is true and another asserts that it is false. So emotivism and imperativalism imply the impossibility moral disagreement. But any view that implies such an implausible assertion as this is inadequate as a general theory of moral meaning.

Finally, some moral statements seem to stand in logical relations with other moral statements. For example, the statement “I have a duty to do x” seems logically to imply the statement “I have a right to do x.” But emotional utterances or mere imperatives do not stand to other emotional utterances or mere imperatives in logical relationships to one another. So emotivism and imperativalism fail to account for this feature of morality.

An imperativalist may respond to this last argument as follows. Consider this syllogism:

Syllogism A:

  1. All promises being kept, please.
  2. This is a promise.
  3. This promise being kept, please.

The imperativalist may argue that moral imperatives may be expressed by sentences like (1) which contains two components: a descriptive component to the left of the cmma (“All promises being kept”) and an imperative component to the right of the comma (“please”). The descriptive component describes a state of affairs, in this case, a world in which all promises are kept. Now a possible world in which all promises are, in fact, kepy, would logically imply that some specific promise is kept. So in a sense, (1) and (2) do imply (3) even though, strictly speaking, none of these propositions is either true or false. But if we allow that there seems to be sense in which the first two premises imply the conclusion, then the imperativalist can argue that this is enough to show that moral imperatives stand in logical relations to other moral imperatives.

Does this imperativalist rejoinder work? The answer seems to be no. As the argument stands, given that (1) through (3) are neither true or false, it is not clear that (1) and (2) logically entail (3). The only sense in which this could be true is if one removes “please” from (1) and (3) to form the following:

Syllogism B:

1′. All promises are kept.
2′. This is a promise.
3′. This promise is kept.

In this case, (3′) does follow from the premises. However, syllogism B no longer contains moral statements because on the imperativalist view, what makes a proposition a moral one is its imperatival force expressed in the word please. It is “please” that gives (1) through (3) their action-guiding potential. Thus the only way that the moral propositions in syllogism A can be said to stand in logical relations to each other is if we drop their distinctively moral component to generate syllogism B. Since B is no longer composed of moral propositions, this response fails.

Cognitivism holds that moral statements make truth claims because they are indicative statements that convey descriptive factual information: the statement “x is right” can be either true or false. Nevertheless, cognitivist theories of the meaning of moral statements differ in what they identify as the object that ethical statements describe.

Subjectivism holds that moral statements covey information about the speaker of the moral statement. According to private subjectivism, “x is right” states the psychological fact that “I like x.” This differs from emotivism. Emotivism holds that moral statements merely express feelings. Private subjectivism, however, holds that moral statements do not express feelings but describe the psychological state of the speaker. An expression of feeling cannot be false. But if person A says “I dislike x,” then this can be false if A really likes x but does not want to admit it. Cultural relativism is the view that statements like “x is right” state the sociological fact that “We in our culture like x.”

…few philosophers hold that these metaethical theories are adequate treatments of morality. The main reason is that they make moral statements into nonmoral statements. The statement “x is right” appears to be a moral statement that makes a normative claim about right and wrong, and it implies a statement about what one ought to do. But the psychological and sociological translations of this statement, “I like x” and “We in our culture like x,” make no normative claims whatever. They assert what people happen to like. So they do not translate moral statements; they transform them inappropriately into nonmoral statements. Thus private subjectivism and cultural relativism cannot be adequate understandings of moral meaning.

Objectivist theories agree with subjectivist theories of moral meaning in holding that moral statements assert true or false statements of fact. However, rather than focusing on the speakers of moral statements, objectivism holds that moral statements are stating facts about the acts of morality themselves or the objects that are said to have value.

The statement “The apple is red” says something about the apple. The statements “Persons have value” and “Murder is wrong” say something about persons and acts of murder. Just as “The apple is red” asserts that the apple has a property (redness), so moral statements assert that persons or moral acts have certain properties. In short, objectivist theories hold that moral statements convey information about persons or moral acts by describing properties of those persons or acts.

It is here that agreement among objectivists ends. The two major versions of objectivism – ethical naturalism and ethical non naturalism – disagree over the nature of the moral properties that moral judgments ascribe to persons or acts. The debate between them is over the issue of moral reductionism (i.e., over whether or not moral properties can be reduced to or identified with nonmoral properties). Ethical naturalists say that such a reduction is correct, and ethical nonnaturalists say that moral properties are unique and cannot be reduced to nonmoral properties.

Ethical naturalism is a reductionist view that holds that ethical terms (goodness, worth, and right) can be defined by or reduced to natural, scientific properties that are biological, psychological, sociological or physical in nature. For example, according to ethical naturalism the term right in “X is right” means one of the following: “What is approved by an impartial, ideal observer”; “What maximizes desire or interest”; “What furthers human survival.” The important point here is that these moral terms and moral properties are not irreducibly moral in nature. Moral properties (e.g., worth, goodness, or rightness) turn out to be properties that are biological or psychological.

Furthermore, according to ethical naturalism, these properties can be measured by science by giving them operational definitions. Consider an example. Suppose “X is right” means “X is what most people desire,” and one goes on to argue that the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain is what most people desire. A scientist could measure  the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain by defining such a state in physiological terms – the presence of a certain heart rate, the absence of certain impulses in the nervous system, slight coloration of the skin. “Rightness” means what is desired by most people; what is desired by most people is the presence of pleasure and the absence of pain; and pleasure and pain can be defined by certain physcal traits of the body. Thus the moral property of rightness has been reduced to a natural property that can be measured.

Two major objections can be raised against ethical naturalism both based on its moral reductionism. First, it confuses an is with an ought by reducing the latter to the former. Moral properties are normative properties. They carry with them a moral “ought.” If some act has the property of rightness, then one ought to do that act. But natural properties like the ones listed do not carry normativeness. They just are. Second, every attempted reduction of a moral property to a natural one has failed because there are cases where an act is right even if it does not have the natural property, and an act can have the natural property and not be right. For example, suppose one reduces the moral property of rightness in “X is right” to “X is what is approved by most people.” This reduction is inadequate. For one thing, the majority can be wrong. What most people approve of can be morally wrong. If most people approved of torturing babies, then according to this version of ethical naturalism, this act would be right. But even though it was approved by most people, it would still be wrong. On the other hand, some acts can be right even if they are not approved of (or even thought of, for that matter) by most people.

Ethical nonnaturalism is the only view we have considered that holds that irreducible moral facts and properties really exist as part of the furniture of the universe. In additional to natural properties (redness and so forth), there are moral properties (rightness, goodness, worth), which persons and acts have and which moral statements ascribe to persons and acts. “X is right” ascribes an unanalyzable, irreducible moral property to X, just as “The apple is red” ascribes the natural property redness to the apple. Most Christian theists have advocated some form of ethical nonnaturalism since they hold that God himself has certain morally relevant value properties (goodness, holiness and so forth), that persons made in his image have worth and dignity (as he does) and that some acts have the property of moral rightness.”

(Moreland & Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a  Christian Worldview, 397-402)



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