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In philosophy, meta-ethics, (or analytical ethics), is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties (if there are any), and ethical statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally recognized by philosophers, the others being ethical theory and applied ethics. Ethical theory and applied ethics comprise normative ethics. Meta-ethics has received considerable attention from academic philosophers in the last few decades.

While normative ethics addresses such questions as "Which things are good and bad?" and "What should we do?", thus endorsing some ethical evaluations and rejecting others, meta-ethics addresses the question "What is goodness?", seeking to understand the nature of ethical properties and evaluations.

Meta-ethical questionsEdit

Examples of meta-ethical questions include:

  • What does it mean to say something is "good"?
  • How, if at all, do we know what is right and wrong?
  • How do moral attitudes motivate action?
  • Are there objective or absolute values?
  • What is the source of our values?

Meta-ethical theoriesEdit

A meta-ethical theory, unlike a normative ethical theory, does not contain any ethical evaluations. An answer to any of the five example questions above would not itself be an ethical statement.

The major meta-ethical views are commonly divided into realist and anti-realist views:

  • Moral realism holds that there are objective values. Realists believe that evaluative statements are factual claims, which are either true or false, and that their truth or falsity does not depend on our beliefs, feelings, or other attitudes towards the things that are evaluated. Moral realism comes in two variants:
    • Ethical intuitionism and ethical non-naturalism, which hold that there are objective, irreducible moral properties (such as the property of 'goodness'), and that we sometimes have intuitive awareness of moral properties or of moral truths.
    • Ethical naturalism, which holds that there are objective moral properties but that these properties are reducible to entirely non-ethical properties. Most ethical naturalists hold that we have empirical knowledge of moral truths. Several have argued that moral knowledge can be gained by the same means as scientific knowledge.
  • Moral anti-realism holds that there are no objective values. This view comes in three variants:
    • Ethical Subjectivism, which holds that moral statements are made true or false by the attitudes and/or conventions of observers. There are several different versions of subjectivism, including:
      • Moral Relativism (sometimes called "cultural relativism"): This is the view that for a thing to be morally right is just for it to be approved of by society; this leads to the conclusion that different things are right for people in different societies. Though long out of favor among academic philosophers, this view has been popular among anthropologists, such as Ruth Benedict.
      • The Divine Command Theory: Another subjectivist theory holds that for a thing to be right is for a unique being, God, to approve of it, and that what is right for non-God beings is obedience to the divine will. This view was criticized by Plato in the Euthyphro but retains some modern defenders (Robert Adams, Philip Quinn, and others).
      • Individualist Subjectivism: Another view is that there are as many distinct scales of good and evil as there are subjects in the world. This view was put forward by Protagoras.
      • The Ideal Observer Theory: Finally, some hold that what is right is determined by the attitudes that a hypothetical ideal observer would have. An ideal observer is usually characterized as a being who is perfectly rational, imaginative, and informed, among other things. Richard Brandt is best-known for his defense of this view.
    • Non-cognitivism, which holds that ethical sentences are neither true nor false because they do not assert genuine propositions. Non-cognitivism encompasses:
      • Emotivism, defended by A.J. Ayer and C.L. Stevenson, which holds that ethical sentences serve merely to express emotions. So "Killing is wrong" means something like, "Boo on killing!"
      • Prescriptivism, defended by R.M. Hare, which holds that moral statements function like imperatives. So "Killing is wrong" means something like, "Don't kill!"
      • Quasi-realism, defended by Simon Blackburn, which holds that ethical statements behave linguistically like factual claims and can be appropriately called "true" or "false", even though there are no ethical facts for them to correspond to.
    • Error theory, which holds that ethical sentences are generally false. Error theorists hold that there are no objective values, but that the claim that there are objective values is part of the meaning of ordinary ethical sentences; that is why, in their view, ethical sentences are false. J.L. Mackie was the best-known proponent of this view. The error theory is also sometimes called "moral skepticism" or "nihilism."

Subjectivism, non-cognitivism, and error theory are the only forms of anti-realism: If there are no objective values, this must be either because ethical statements are subjective claims (as subjectivists maintain), or because they are not genuine claims at all (as non-cognitivists maintain), or because they are mistaken objective claims. The only alternative is for ethical statements to be correct objective claims, which entails moral realism.

Another way of categorizing meta-ethical theories distinguishes between monistic theories (in which there is one true, or at least one highest, good) and pluralistic theories.

Value pluralism contends that there are two or more genuine values, knowable as such, yet incommensurable, so that any prioritization of these values is either non-cognitive or subjective. A value pluralist might, for example, contend that both the life of a nun and that of a mother realize genuine values (in an objective and cognitivist sense), yet there is no purely rational measure of which is preferable. See Isaiah Berlin.


Some think that in the 20th and 21st centuries meta-ethics has come to replace normative ethics as the more prevalent pursuit among academic philosophers. This is supposed to have occurred simultaneously with an overall decline in belief in moral absolutes in most popular cultures as well as a greater interest in process and categorization as opposed to the identification and application of norms, both in academia and in global society generally.

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