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Meta-Ethics Case Essay Sample

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Meta-Ethics Case Essay Sample

Meta-ethics is about the ways in which people understand how moral language is used, rather than about finding answers to moral issues. Discuss.

Meta-ethics can be defined simply as the analysis of ethical language. Meta-ethics looks at the meaning of moral judgements and analyses the reasoning behind ethical systems. Meta-ethics includes discussion of what moral language is all about and how it can be justified. Instead of asking the question “is it right?” scholars of Meta-ethics ask “what am I doing when I make that sort of statement?” or “what does it actually mean to say something is right or wrong? Meta-ethics developed throughout the twentieth century, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States, in an attempt to discover what people really did mean when they argued about things being right or wrong.

Meta-ethics is a totally different way of thinking about ethics. Usually, in the study of ethics involves the endeavour to arrive at acceptable principals of obligation and general judgements of value, in order to determine what is morally right or wrong and hence what or who is morally good or bad. Meta-ethics however does not propound any moral principals or goals for action as it consists merely of philosophical analysis, in terms of clarifying and understanding moral language.

There are three main group distinctions in Meta-ethics, Ethical naturalism, Ethical non-naturalism (intuitionism), and Ethical non-cognitivism (emotivism).

Ethical naturalist theories state that ethical language can be used in exactly the same way as language in other areas of human debate, as a factual concept. Therefore saying that a person is morally good or bad is the same sort of factual statement as saying someone was born in 1972. The date of birth of the person can be found by looking up in records and from accounts of people who were there. It can also be established if the person was good or bad by looking at his or her life and activities, either judged as bad or good in themselves or in their results. Ethical naturalism tells us that these statements are fact and can be established. This simple approach however, does not often work; often comparisons used may be false. For example “the person is born in 1972” can be certified as true by looking at health records and or birth certificate. However coming to the conclusion of “he/she is good/bad” is drawing a conclusion from a shared opinion from people who know the actions of the person. However other people who know the person may have different opinions on the morality of the person and whether they are good or bad. This is why in ethical naturalism it is very difficult to come to a moral conclusion.

Psychology can be used as another method in ethical naturalism. Something can be defined as good if it has a desired or satisfying outcome. Therefore if an action satisfies human desires, then it is good. Good could be defines here as happiness and pleasure- as this satisfies human desire. This branch of ethical naturalism can be used to argue many cases, particularly in the case of sexual intercourse outside of marriage. Sexual intercourse between consenting human desires is always morally good as it fulfils the desires of both parties and therefore sex should not have to be kept within the confinements of the traditional Christian marriage, but should be freely possible to consenting adults. However, in some cases desire can easily be thought of as something evil as opposed to something good. Therefore in this theory care must be taken to maintain that the desires of a person that were being satisfied were competent decisions and that the person deciding was a morally competent adult with a sincere and serious desire. There is no objective scale of values that can be used to define what a sincere desire is and therefore good cannot be measured accurately.

Ethical non-naturalism, or intuitionism is a theory produced by G.E Moore, and sprung up as an attack at ethical naturalism. He argued that ethical naturalism defined more moral terms by using too open questions and therefore coherent answers could not be achieved. In Moore’s theory of Intuitionism he distinguished between complex and simple things. Complex things being capable of analysis, simple things were not. For example he said that;

“If one were trying to describe an object as “yellow” one is quite clear what one can see. If we are asked to analyse it so that someone else can understand what we are seeing, we cannot do this in words, all we can do is show them colour for themselves. This idea of yellow is based on a person’s intuition”(a).

We can use this also with good and bad; we know instinctively if something if good- therefore a thing is right if it leads to something that is good. The idea is that what is good is known instinctively, our obligations to other people are self evident.

It is not evident from Moore that intuition will allow us the same degree of certainty. People’s intuition about what is good and bad may greatly vary. The analysis with “sense is experience”, can be examined more closely, to show the weakness of Moore’s theory of Intuitionism;

Children have to be taught how to behave. Consider the development and adjustment of the behaviour of a child from a screaming infant to a well adjusted adult. The adult appears to have an innate sense of right and wrong. Is this nature or nurture? Compare this to cases of child murderers- did they have an innate sense of right and wrong which was buried in a desperate childhood, or were they simply not taught the difference between good and bad and right and wrong? (a)

The above theories all assume that ethical prepositions are based on knowledge, knowledge comparable in quality to other sorts of human knowledge. In the 1920’s a group of philosophers met in Vienna to engage in the analysis of ethical language. This “Vienna circle” produced the “Verification Principal” and was concerned to establish a test for the meaningfulness of a statement. The “Verification Principal” said that “a statement is meaningful if, and only if, it is capable of empirical verification in theory” (b). This became the basis for the emotovist, non-cognitivist theory. The emotovist believes that we make moral judgements on the basis of feelings. These feelings lead to actions. Therefore when we pass moral judgements, we are expressing our emotions on a subject and, trying to encourage others to feel the same way. For example, the statement “Euthanasia is wrong” should really read “I do not agree with Euthanasia”. However, there are problems with this as sometimes the truth however depends on the speaker. For example the statement “I am allergic to strawberries” said by one person may not be true for another person.

C.L Stevenson, in his book Ethics and language states that “there are conflicts of belief and attitude. If one doctor says “operate!” and another says “drug therapy”, they are in moral agreement,-there is no dispute over trying to cure the patient. Therefore the vast majority of disagreement about what is right is in fact disagreement about belief, and not moral disagreements at all” (c).

A.J.Ayer states that; “Moral judgements are not propositions at all-they are not true or false. They do not describe anything, not even the feeling of the speaker. They are more like exclamations”. (a)

Moral prepositions are still prepositions, but they are only true or false in relations to the person speaking. However, exclamations are still ways of communicating feelings, and they can also be used to mislead. Therefore the non-cognitivist theory, proposes that moral judgements lie between descriptions and exclamations, and have characteristics of both.

The three main variations on Meta-ethics all follow the same fundamental principal – Meta-ethics is the philosophical analysis of language and does not aim to propound any principals or goals.


(A)-Religious studies:Philosophy and Ethics-Greg Dewar

(B)-Religious ethics-Patrick Allsop

(C)-Ethics and Language-Stevenson

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