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Meta-Ethics and Ethical Language

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1 Meta-Ethics and Ethical Language
What is goodness? How about getting a top grade at A Level? G.E. Moore Meta-Ethics and Ethical Language Another laughably easy A2 topic

2 What is Meta-Ethics? From the Greek ‘meta’ (meaning ‘beyond’) and ‘ethikos’ (meaning ‘character’ or ‘custom’). Meta-ethics is the study of underlying ethical ideas or ethical language. Meta-ethics can be contrasted with normative ethics (the attempt to work out which actions are right/wrong) and descriptive ethics (the attempt to compare and describe moral behaviours). In simple terms, meta-ethics is concerned with the question of what is the meaning (if any) of ‘goodness’? The main parts of this A2 topic are the meaning of ethical language (is it natural/non-natural?) and the explanation of ethics in terms of Emotivism.

3 Naturalism/Non-Naturalism
Are our ethics a real part of our natural existence, or do they escape from this kind of definition? Can we give a natural explanation of goodness? Ethical Naturalism This is the view that morals can be defined or explained in natural terms, or supported through the observation of the world in science. Naturalists develop their ideas with non-moral evidence. If we define goodness as pleasure, we may look at evidence of pleasure and pain in actions. If we say that goodness is whatever God desires, we will look for evidence of God’s purposes in the natural world. Ethical Non-Naturalism A famous ethical naturalist F.H. Bradley argued that goodness is a natural aspect of society, as people reach “self realisation within the community”. The problem with this is that it gives a narrow account of goodness and some might disagree. The philosopher G.E. Moore criticised ethical naturalism for its tendency to associate goodness with varying and often contradictory properties. He believed that defining goodness in terms of natural facts is mistaken, referring to this as the ‘naturalistic fallacy’. Ethics: a natural factor of the world around us? Moore: Ethical naturalism = bad idea

4 The ‘is-ought’ gap Moore’s idea that goodness is not a natural property linked up with ideas which had been current in ethics for some time. He argued that our morals are non-natural (not apparent in the world around us) and cannot be defined by the world around us. A similar idea had previously been put forward by the 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume claimed that we cannot move logically from a statement about the way the world is to a statement about how we ought to act. This view is known as the ‘is-ought gap’ or Hume’s guillotine, because he made a clear cut between facts and ethics. The radical conclusion which this leads to is the idea that there is no such thing as a moral fact. Could that really be true?

5 Moore and Intuitionism
Moore argues that “good is good, and that is the end of the matter”. It is an indefinable and completely simple idea. Moore compares this to the colour yellow – ‘yellow’ can only be known directly through intuition. Yellow is just yellow, and that’s all there is to it. We don’t explain it in terms of something else. Moore claims that goodness is just the same; you can’t explain it any further. It then follows that we have an intuitive sense of right or wrong: almost by instinct we know what is valuable (relationships, beautiful things). Moore did not think that we can prove an intuition, and it may be that our intuitions are wrong. This perhaps leaves ethical debate in quite a weak position. Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore: best mates Moore set out his ideas about ethics in his book Principia Ethica (1903), taking on the common naturalistic ideas in moral philosophy. His basic argument was that good “cannot be defined” and that philosophers have wasted their time trying. His counter-suggestion was what he called ‘moral intuitionism’.

6 Other forms of Intuitionism: Pritchard and Ross
In a similar vein to Moore, the philosopher H.A. Pritchard argued that moral obligations form immediate apprehensions, a bit like mathematics. We can see directly that 1+1=2 for example, without needing further explanation. However, Pritchard thought that our intuitions involve more than just goodness, but also a sense of obligation. There is a gap between saying that something is good and saying that one ought to do it. So, resolving a moral dilemma involves weighing up contrasting obligations and trying to work out which is most important. The advantage of this is its positive view of human nature – people have genuine obligations and duties to fulfil. However, Pritchard’s idea of duty is very subjective; it’s not clear if there is a ‘right’ way to solve dilemmas. W.D. Ross held similar ideas to Pritchard and Moore, agreeing that moral principles are not absolute or defined in natural terms. Ross developed the idea of prima facie duties (meaning, the duties we have at first sight). In any situation, we have duties which are apparent. We are bound by an important prima facie obligation unless there is some other compelling reason. Ross listed seven key prima facie duties: promise keeping, reparation for harm done, gratitude, justice, beneficence, self-improvement, and non-maleficence. Ross thought that we would choose between these on the basis of judgement; we do not have a logical system for working it out. In this sense, his theory is truly intuitive. W.D. Ross, author of The Right and the Good

7 Strengths of Intuitionism
Intuition has given a clear account of the meaning of ‘good’ in ethics – it is simple and known directly. Intuitionism does not prescribe a rigid morality, since it allows that our intuitive judgements may be wrong. Key ethicists Moore, Pritchard, and Ross are broadly in agreement. Moore’s ‘naturalistic fallacy’ seems persuasive: we can always criticise those who associate the good with something else. Pritchard and Ross’ view that duties are self-evident gives a positive outlook on human nature.

8 Weaknesses of Intuitionism
Intuitionists have failed to agree on what the moral good is which supposedly is self-evident. Moore had a teleological view, emphasising the promotion of happiness and the appreciation of beauty. Ross, however, emphasised duty. It is a highly individualist approach to ethics does not give us concrete justifications for ethical behaviour – all it claims is that goodness is indefinable. Intuitionism does not help us to resolve moral disputes and does not set out a clear decision making process. Contrast this with Utilitarianism, for example, which gives us the utility principle: the greatest good for the greatest number.

9 Introducing Emotivism
A.J. Ayer, author of Language, Truth and Logic (1936) A key form of ethical non-cognitivism is Emotivism – the view that morals can be understood purely as emotional responses. The theory can be traced back to the Logical Positivists – a group of philosophers who gave ethical language a scientific definition, ignoring the idea of real or natural values. The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume had argued that ethics amounts only to ‘sentiments’ (feelings), and this idea was later taken up by the modern English philosopher, A.J. Ayer. According to Ayer’s Verification Principle, language is only meaningful if it can be verified (shown to be true) either analytically or synthetically. Ayer did not think that this applied to religious beliefs or moral ideas.

10 The nature of ethical language, according to Ayer
Ayer argued that ethical language really expresses our feelings about something or somebody we do / do not like. We simply express our approval or disapproval, so that to say ‘lying is wrong’ is a bit like saying ‘boo to lying’. Ayer claimed, “in saying a certain type of action is right or wrong, I am not making any factual statement … I am merely expressing certain moral sentiments.” So, ethics just amounts to our subjective feelings. Often, Ayer’s theory is thus called the ‘boo-hurrah’ theory of ethics. Emotivism: ‘Stealing is wrong’ … just means ‘boo to stealing!’

11 Strengths of command in Ayer’s Emotivism
However, in this theory it is not the case that all emotive statements are equal. Moral statements arouse feelings, but with three different strengths of command. So, implying a duty is the strongest form of statement. Saying that one ‘ought’ to do something is less strong. Finally, merely stating that something is good/bad is very weak. This is all emotion, but it functions with different intensity.

12 More Emotivism – C.L. Stevenson
Another key Emotivist philosopher was C.L. Stevenson, who developed similar ideas to Ayer. However, unlike Ayer, Stevenson claimed that there are such things as real disagreements in attitudes, rather than just differing emotions. Stevenson did not just emphasise the persuasive side of ethics, but also the view that attitudes are based on beliefs. So, if I say that ‘capital punishment is wrong’, I have an attitude which is shaped by my prior beliefs. Disagreements are not just different emotions, but also issues of different underlying convictions – what life is, its value, etc. Stevenson’s views thus give more meaning to moral disagreement, whereas Ayer only sees these as conflicts of feelings.

13 Strengths of Emotivism
Ayer’s approach to ethics lacks the problem of speculative and metaphysical ideas – it is based on the observation of behaviour, rather than God or timeless forms. It is easy to think of ideas which link with Emotivism – people making moral claims with great emotional conviction and less ‘proof’. Stevenson is able to explain the complex meaning of ethical terms and gives some hope for resolving ethical disputes, because he emphasises underlying beliefs and definitions.

14 Weaknesses of Emotivism
James Rachels criticises Emotivism for removing reason from moral judgements; in our morality we appeal to reason, as in any other aspect of life. In the case of terrible crimes, it seems inadequate to say that condemnation of these is ‘just emotion’. Surely something like genocide is intrinsically wrong. Peter Vardy criticises Ayer’s Emotivism for being an ‘ethical non-theory’ because it only discusses emotion and does not really deal with the idea of actions being ethical at all.

15 The idea that ethical language is non-factual is extremely radical
The idea that ethical language is non-factual is extremely radical. Are there no moral truths? Your view counts. Intuitionism and Emotivism are both very different from the normative ethical theories we’ve looked at: Kant, Natural Law, etc. Which do you think is best? Ideas to Evaluate Criticisms of religious language are a bit like criticisms of some ethical theories, because both can be ‘metaphysical’. Could it be that claims about God or what is ultimate are all meaningless? The idea that we ‘just know’ right or wrong intuitively is really intriguing, but can we agree? Do we have to learn our morals through discussion and reason instead?

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