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Meta-ethics a guide to morality?

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Roshni Virdee

on 17 July 2014

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Transcript of Meta-ethics a guide to morality?

Meta-ethics a guide to morality?
Meta ethics is the analysis of ethical language .
In other words, it looks at what ethical language means, for example what the word 'good' really mean?

Ethical statements are meaningful as they can be proved true or false
Expresses facts
As cognitive ethics is objective judgements are based on a valued system
Realist which means it doesn't suggest moral decision making is an expression of feelings

Cognitivism is a gateway to naturalism and intuitionism

Expresses feeling and values
As non-cognitive ethics is subjective judgements are based on opinions
Non-cognitive theories would include emotivism and prescriptivism

R.M Hare suggest that ethical statements have intrinsic sense and are logically consistent and so others should agree with the statement and follow it, as it implies what ‘ought to be done’ and this is universal.
For example, if it is said that 'murder is wrong' it means that you shouldn't murder and so neither will I. This idea of universability not only applies to actions for other people but follows that these actions should be done by ourselves too.

Naturalism- this is idea that all ethical statements should be treated as non-ethical ones, therefore should be verified or falsified, for example; “Rain is wet” this statement can be proved true or false by looking at evidence.

Intuitionism is the idea that moral truths are known by intuition. In other words, you know moral truths by just using you mind/innate knowledge. Also it’s the idea that there are objective moral truths/duties that are ought to be done that are independent of human beings. W.D Ross called these objective moral truths/duty the “prima facie duties”


Criticism: Emotivism is questioned as to whether or not it is an actual theory. If everything is about how we feel then how can we know anything at all? This is a strong argument as it questions the accuracy of the theory as a whole.

Despite this, emotivism does try to highlight why moral disputes are difficult to resolve decisively.

James Rachels says that Ayer and Stevenson are wrong to remove the idea of reasoning from ethical judgements as there is so much more to statements than just an expression of feeling. So, a statement such as 'i like red apples' needs no reason, but moral judgements do otherwise they are just pointless.

It is suggested by Hare that moral statements are universal and absolute, which is a strength as it can be applied in all situations.

Good Theory: It is suggested by Hare that moral statements are universal and absolute, which is a strength as it can be applied in all situations.

J.L Mackie that this idea of universability is wrong. This is as his reasoning was based upon the idea that his preferences may be different from someone else's. This can be a strong argument as it undermines Hare’s approach showing it is impractical

Prescriptivism is logically consistent, which means that what is good and bad will not change, therefore everyone will always know what is good. Also, it supports the law in a sense that it is in agreement to what ‘ought to be done’

J.L Mackie suggests that by looking at cultural differences in other societies it is clear how not everyone is in agreement to what ‘ought to be done’. For example, in some cultures you are not allowed to dress in a certain way as it is inappropriate, however in others the way you are dress is for the individual to decide.

Greek: above/beyond
Having moral knowledge, so your able to know whats right and whats wrong
No ethical knowledge because ethical language and statements give no factual information.
Boo Hurrah Theory
Emotivists like C.L Stevenson and A.J Ayer think that moral statements are just an expression of feeling.
For example, if we say 'euthanasia is right' or 'war is bad' then what is being said doesn't hold any significance as we are just expressing approval or disapproval. Therefore, these words are suggested to be meaningless as they are only an expression of emotion.

Prima facie duties:
1) Duty of fidelity (promises)
2) Duty of reparation (done something wrong
3) Duty of gratitude
4) Duty of benefice (helping others)
5) Duty of non- maleficence (not harming others

Emotivism can be seen as allowing freedom of an action on the basis that everyone's opinion is equally valid so everyone can do as they like. I think this is a strong argument against emotivism as if everyone is free to do as they choose it can lead to chaos and collapse of society as there are no clear rules.
It can be said that if we do not know what we are talking about then there's no point to ethically debate
Normative ethics differs from meta-ethics as it gives a guide for moral behavior-'What should I do in a situation?'. An example of normative ethics are utilitarianism and Kantian ethics.
Evaluation- Cognitive

Criticism: As cognitivism is objective it lacks diversity as we all have a different account of what is good and what is bad.
But, if we were to Critique the Critique
It can be argued that an objective set of rules can allow equality as everyone has a clear set of what is good and what is bad, and so are guided to the right course of action.
The naturalistic fallacy

Naturalistic Fallacy is the claim that good cannot be defined

David Hume said that 'what is and ought to be should remain unrelated to each other.'
By this he is referring to the 'is-ought gap', which means that you cannot move from a factual statement (an is) to an ought statement.
For example, you cannot go from saying factually 'Mark was killed' to an ought statement that 'you ought not to kill'.
This is because it is illogically invalid to do so as a statement of fact cannot be transformed into a moral imperative.
G.E Moore said in his book 'Principia Ethica' that: 'Good can be defined no more successfully than yellow' -Book 'Principia Ethica'

Thinkers- Intuitionism

By this he meant that we can recognise good when we see it as we just know if something is good. Also, we are unable to use our senses to tell if something is good, by our 'moral intuition', so we can say if statements are true or false.
H.A Prichard stated that moral obligations are just as indefinable as good. This is as the moral claim 'ought' cannot be defined, like Moore's claim about 'good', are all able to recognise it. Therefore, we recognise what we 'ought' to do in a situation.
He did notice that peoples morals were different, but said this was because some peoples moral thinking was more developed than others.
H.A Prichard
W.D Ross
He thought that it was obvious that only certain types of actions were right, which he called Prima facie duties.
Evaluation- Non-cognitive

Criticism: Non-cognitivsim as it is subjective what is considered to be good and bad for one person may differ for another. Therefore, this can lead to inequalities as there is no one agreement.
But, if we were to critique the critique
It may be argued that it allows individuals to think independently and consider what is good and what is bad.
Evaluation - Naturalism
Criticism: G.E Moore argued that ethical naturalism cannot verify moral statements using empirical evidence. This is because the terms 'good' and 'bad' are indefinable.
But, if we were to critique the critique
It can be argued that as empirical evidence is factual , it can be verified or falsified, therefore naturalism is a strong theory as it is based on the evidence we know.
In my opinion I think that naturalism can be undermined by the naturalistic fallacy as terms like good must be able to be definable to be able to use empirical knowledge to know what they are, therefore this theory can be considered weak.

Evaluation - Intuitionism
Criticism: It can be questioned as to how we can be sure that intuitions are correct. Are they a gut feeling? The voice of God? Conscience?
By critiquing the critique it can be said that ..
H.A Prichard argued that we recognise what we 'ought' to do in a situation as moral obligations are obvious and therefore we know what should be done.
However by critiquing this..
Prichard does not distinguish between a conflict of obligations and states that we should decide which is greater. Therefore, according to Prichard it would then seem to be that intuition wouldn't be something that everyone could use to prove 'goodness'
Evaluation - Emotivism

By critiquing the critique it can be said that..
However, this argument could be critiqued by saying..
Evaluation- Prescriptivism
By critiquing this it can be argued by...
However, by critiquing the critique it may be said that...
Nevertheless, it can be said that...
Meta-Ethics a guide to morality ?
Meta-ethics can be seen to be a good guide to morality. Cognitivism is good because it can be applied to complex situations. For example, in situations like abortion or euthanasia using empirical evidence or intuition can be easily done as you know exactly what the best thing to do is.
However, Cognitivism is bad because it can be seen to be not flexiable enough as it cannot be changed or developed as its ideas are objective.
Arguably, non-cognitivism is flexible and so it can be changed, this is good as it can now apply to cultural diversity as it understands that different cultures have different ideas of what is good. Despite this though, non-cognitivism is bad because when being applied to complex situations it is difficult to decide on the correct way as different people have different ideas and deciding on one is impossible as it is a matter of subjection.
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