Meta-ethics is the defining of the language used in normative ethics, like right or wrong, “good” or bad. It is “Wholly concerned with analysing the language people use when discussing any moral issue” (Vardy). Different modern empiricists have very different views on whether it is possible to define what the meaning of “”good””, and if so, what it’s meaning is.
G.E. Moore, an Intuitionist believed that “goodness” could not be defined in terms of anything else. He believed that because what is “good” cannot be proved empirically, we must use our intuition to help us know what is “good”. He would argue that we cannot understand the definition of “goodness” through intuition, or ever prove what is right or wrong in ethics. He thought that we cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”, because we cannot define what “good” is, so how can we possibly know what “ought” to be done. He had a teleological view to intuitionism, in that he believed that we can only understand what is “good” through its end effect. Other intuitionists however had very different points of view; W.D. Ross would argue that we can only act upon our intuition in any situation, because we cannot possibly know enough about any given situation to judge what the “good” thing to do would be. Furthermore he also believed that it is impossible to define what “right” or “wrong” is, so intuition is the only way to judge how to deal with any situation.
By contrast, the Logical Positivists believe that “Genuine knowledge is only that provable by science.” A.J. Ayer, a leading logical positivist would argue that anything non-empirically-provable is meaningless, or non-cognitive. A statement such as “your eyes are pretty” or “rape is wrong” is completely nonsensical, as it cannot be proved. According to him, all that we are doing by making such statements is expressing our personal approval or disapproval; saying “boo” or “hurrah”. His view on intuitionism was that it is in itself an abstract concept, completely improvable by science, and thus is non-cognitive.
So any notion of being able to tell what is “right” or “wrong” (two already meaningless statements) through intuition is, in his view, farcical. C.L. Stevenson had a similar point of view- he believed that moral language is non-cognitive, but we use it to convey persuasive definitions- for instance, although non-consensual sex and rape have the same meaning, we use the latter to display a disgust and disapproval, it is a persuasive definition. R.M. Hare was another logical positivist, he believed in prescriptivism; that we use moral language to persuade others to believe in the same moral values as ourselves, and to follow our lead. To say that “rape is a disgusting action in which the offender is nothing more than a cowardly pervert” is not just a statement, but also an attempt to prescribe your views to other people, and thus hope they will follow your point of view and not commit rape.
Throughout meta-ethics, the word “good” is understood to be indefinable. However the main difference between intuitionism and logical positivism is that most intuitionists believe that we can do “good” through using our intuition, whereas logical positivists denounce the word “good” in the first place- stating that it is meaningless, and that in doing “good”, we are only doing what we approve of, and there is no more depth to the morality of the situation than that.
“Anything people approve of must be good.”- Discuss
This view is surprisingly widely believed. The argument for it is basically as follows- everybody tries to do good, for them, good is what they approve of, and people approve of different and contradictory things, and as we have no means of telling who is right and who is wrong, then everybody must be right; thus anything that people approve of must be good… This is the emotivist’s view, and is relatively effective in avoiding conflict, if in nothing else.
The main problem with this view is that it is simply impossible to agree to disagree on many issues. If somebody kills your mother; you are hardly going to say to him, “although I disapprove of what you did, I accept you that did what you believed in, and thus you are as right as I am”. It is simply ridiculous; because unlike logical positivism, which says that nothing is right or wrong, we just express our opinions with these words, emotivism takes it a step further by saying that everybody is right, and if you approve in what you are doing, then it is consequently “good”, regardless of what it is you are actually doing. This seems extremely flawed for it could be acceptable to believe that everybody is entitled to his or her opinion, but to state that every opinion is correct, regardless of whether they involve saving humanity or destroying the universe is extremely foolish. It is simply a way of avoiding moral dilemma’s or conflicts, and as a meta-ethical view, it creates more problems than it solves.
A societal view would be that whatever a certain culture believes is “good” is in fact good society. This statement however takes it a step further, and states that each individual person’s point of view on what is right or wrong is what that person should be judged by. Both arguments fail at the same point; whether “good” is definable or not, murder and protecting life cannot both be good. In this sense we cannot derive an “is” from an “ought”, so we can either state people’s beliefs, and leave it at that, because any further insight would be nonsensical, or we can take a normative view on whether what they are doing is right or not, but to state that everything that anybody approves of is “good” simply contradicts the foundations of meta-ethics.