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Contemporary Metaethics: An Introduction


Chapter 1: Introduction

Metaethics examines what people are doing when engaging in normative ethics. How are they using the words? How does one judge between one ethical answer and another? What data counts?

The main point of contention in metaethics is between cognitivists, who think that ethics is a cognitive pursuit with a truth value, and non-cognitivists, who think that ethics is made of judgments like emotions or desires, which do not have truth values (my desire for a beer is not true of false).

Strong cognitivists think that moral judgments can be true and false and that they can result from accessing the facts that make them up. Naturalist strong-cognitivists think that the facts that go into the moral truth of the matter is made up of facts about the natural world- the world studied by the natural sciences and psychology. Non-naturalists think moral facts are not reducible, or are sui generis- self generated.

Moral realism is basically the idea that moral facts are true of false independent of human opinion. Mackie’s error theory says that moral judgments are always false, and is an example of an anti-realist theory.

Weak cognitivists think there is a truth or falsity of moral judgments, but that they cannot be judged through cognitive access to moral facts.

Among the non-cognitivists, emotivism says that moral judgments are expressions of approval or disapproval, quasi-realism says moral judgments are our dispositions to form sentiments of approval or disapproval.

Finally, internalists see a necessary connection between moral judgments and motivations to act. Externalists do not see this necessary connection.

Chapter 2: Moore’s Attack on Ethical Naturalism

Moore’s basic point is that since we can, without conceptual confusion, ask “Is X good?” where X is any natural or unnatural property of being, that means that X cannot be identical/defined as good.

My first reaction is that this is just begging the question. Some people might say that yes there is in fact conceptual confusion if you have to ask whether some X is good.

My second reaction is to throw up my hands since this is yet another philosophical issue in which tabooing our words would cut through 95% of the confusion and debate.

People have multiple contradictory ideas about what counts as “good.” So replace it with a word that gets to what you actually are striving for, and don’t pretend your definition actually fits everyone else’s use. I don’t care about what a God commands us, because there is no such thing. I do care about suffering and joy, because those things do exist. Let’s admit some words are amorphous, and move on to more productive debates.

it makes sense to ask ‘Is a pleasurable action good?’ or ‘Is something which we desire to desire good?’ Someone asking these questions betrays no conceptual confusion (420).
So: (6) The property of being good cannot as a matter of conceptual necessity be identical to the property of being N. This argument is often referred to as ‘the Open-Question Argument’ (424).
Note: Just taboo the word!
(13) If ‘good’ and ‘N’ are analytically equivalent, then ceteris paribus competent speakers should – after conceptual reflection – come to find it natural to guide their evaluative judgements by the analysis (528).

Note: Optical illusions!

Chapter 3: Emotivism

This chapter explores the idea that moral judgments are basically just evaluations (boo murder! yay charity!). Ayer believes this by ruling out all other alternatives. He rules out non-naturalism based on logical positivism, the idea that something is only literally significant if it is empirically verifiable, or analytic. This ruling out comes into question right away because logical positivism has some problems.

Ayer rules out naturalism in a with objections like Moore’s. Miller goes on the assumption that Moore’s objections work, and goes from there.

Miller’s biggest objections note that Moore’s argument would rule out Ayer’s view as well (3.6), and the Moral Attitude Problem which is that emotivists cannot plausibly answer what sort of emotion or feeling moral judgments express. It’s simply a “special” sentiment.

As far as I see, I just don’t use moral judgments in the way Ayer seems to think they are used. It is not descriptively correct about my usage. So, as usual, let’s taboo our words about our “moral” judgments and make some actual progress.

Philosophers often want to say that properties of one sort supervene on properties of a different sort. What does it mean to say that the moral properties of an object supervene on its natural properties? It means if two things have exactly the same natural properties, then they also have exactly the same moral properties. If you find that two things have different moral properties, you must also find that they differ in some way in respect of their natural properties (745).

Chapter 4 and Chapter 5 outline two more non-cognitivist theories. I won’t go over them here because there’s way too much, but I swear I wouldn’t mind never hearing the Frege-Geach problem described again in my life. These theories get into trouble when accounting for if-then statements that seem to use moral judgments as facts that can be true or false (this is the Frege-Geach problem).  They also seem to suffer from the moral attitude problem- they have trouble accounting for what kind of emotion or sentiment moral judgments are reflecting.

Blackburn’s quasi-realism is also a version of projectivism, explicitly designed to meet the problems raised for emotivism (1156).

Projectivism is the philosophy of evaluation which says that evaluative properties are projections of our own sentiments (emotions, reactions, attitudes, commendations). Quasi-realism is the enterprise of explaining why our discourse has the shape it does, in particular by way of treating evaluative predicates like others, if projectivism is true. It thus seeks to explain, and justify, the realistic-seeming nature of our talk of evaluations – the way we think we can be wrong about them, that there is a truth to be found, and so on (1159).

Thus, if what I have argued in this chapter is correct, the quasi-realist has at least the beginnings of replies to the four problems which plagued emotivism: the problem of implied error, the Frege-Geach problem, the problem of mind-dependence and (via the construction of moral truth) the problem of the schizoid attitude. But, until the moral attitude problem is solved, the quasi-realist position will not fully satisfy those who seek a metaethical theory with a plausible psychology of morals (1986).

Gibbard’s theory is non-cognitivist in this sense: according to Gibbard, a moral judgement expresses an agent’s acceptance of norms (2008).

Gibbard is first and foremost a non-cognitivist about rationality. To say that X is rational is not to ascribe a property to X, to utter a truth-conditional statement about X; rather, it is to express acceptance of a system of norms which permits X.Read more at location (2019).

Chapter 6: Mackie’s Error Theory, the Argument from Queerness, and Moral Fictionalism

Finally, A cognitivist account! Eat it Frege and Geach! Mackie thinks that moral judgments can have a true/false value, but he thinks that they happen to always be false. This is because moral terms like “good” and “evil” entail things about the world that are not true, namely that categorical, objective prescriptions do not exist. There is nothing that always and everywhere obligates us to commit or refrain from an act. That means that judging X as wrong is false, because nothing is wrong, i.e. we are never categorically, objectively obligated to avoid anything.

Mackie’s argument from queerness is the main reason to reject moral realism. True moral judgments would reflect something absolutely bizarre about the world which has no other precedent or likeness.

Wright says that we should just be able to alter our use of language. So there is no absolute obligation. But there are still things that help us and things that don’t, things that make people happy, etc. Why not adjust our use of good and evil in that direction? The answer is that the universality and categorical bindingness of the obligations are inherent in our use of language. Better to abandon the words than radically redefine them.

The way I see it, there can be professional views of things that do in fact contrast with the regular use and intuitions of everyday people. Even if everyone thought that water was an element, I don’t think it would be necessary for scientists to proclaim that there is no water, and then use another word. Same for things like moral, or matter, or sunrise, etc. Sometimes the expert use of words differs, is more precise, and more accurate. I don’t judge my definitions necessarily by how Joe Bag-o-doughnuts uses the term.

An error-theory about a particular region of discourse is the claim that the positive, atomic sentences of that discourse are systematically and uniformly false (2344).

Mackie’s conceptual claim is that our concept of a moral requirement is the concept of an objectively, categorically prescriptive requirement. What does this mean? To say that moral requirements are prescriptive is to say that they tell us how we ought to act, to say that they give us reasons for acting (2417).

Chapter 7 is an attempt to answer the argument from queerness by making an account of moral judgments in analogy to color judgments. Miller judges this to be unsuccessful.

Unlike our colour concepts, our concept of a moral fact is the concept of a categorical reason for action. So moral facts, if such there be, must be capable of providing a reason for agents to act in a particular way independently of facts about their desires or affective make-up (3150).

Chapter 8 involves some side issues of metaethics. Just gonna skip that for now.

Chapter 9 and 10 finally get to different forms of naturalism, but I must say they’re not anything near what I was expecting. Cornell realism tries to portray morality as something irreducible. What is right and wrong doesn’t get reduced to other natural properties like water might be reduced to H2O. Chapter 10 is something nearer to what seems realistic. Railton attempts to reduce moral value to naturalistic properties. The account of non-moral value seemed worth reading. Railton sees something as valuable insofar as it would be desired by a sort of idealized, fully informed version of oneself, with a bunch of philosophical adjustments to make it more consistent. I suppose that’s an interesting idea, but I’m still a bit confused as to how this fully informed person would form these desires. How do certain beliefs actually affect the desires, and why? It seems this account glosses over much of what makes the question difficult. What is desirable, and why should it be?

Moral value is similar to non-moral value, but from the level of society. What I believe this account lacks is normative pull for the individuals. I don’t see a reason for action that exists for a person if something only has moral value, but not non-moral value. I don’t mind still calling such things morally good or bad, but it would violate some of what Miller thinks is essential for moral value.

Chapter 11 covers some non-naturalism, which Miller ultimately abandons as defective, for reasons I don’t feel like going into.


Overall I got a little fed up by what seemed to me to be inconsequential refinements of relatively useless ideas. If we taboo-ed our words, and appealed more to moral psychology, as well as the psychology of choice and reasoning and action, then I think we could skip over a lot of this philosophical work. I think we already have a good account of how people make moral judgments in a descriptive sense. I’m thinking Haidt’s Righteous Mind, Hauser’s Moral Minds, Wright’s, Moral Animal.

Speaking more normatively, I think Railton’s naturalistic morality is worth developing a little better. I’d read a whole book on that subject. Alonzo Fyfe‘s desirism still seems to capture “oughtness” better than any account I’ve come into contact with so far, and it seems to share much with Railton’s view. Given that desires are the only reasons for action that exist, figuring out what desires are, and what people actually desire,as well as how to pursue such things, seems to be the best way to pursue that idea, something similar to Harris’ science of morality program.

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