Jargon in Meta Ethics, Part One

by Ben Ryding

It’s easy to get lost in all of the jargon when reading philosophy.  Seeing as how I’d like to have some discussion on meta ethics in upcoming posts, I thought I’d help out my vast readership by defining some key terms.

First, let me briefly define meta ethics. Ethics can generally be described in three distinct categories: applied ethics, normative ethics, and meta ethics.  Rather than inquiring on what actions may be right or wrong, or asking questions about ethics in the real world, meta ethics is concerned with the nature of moral language.   There are two top level categories in meta-ethics: cognitivism and noncognitivism.  This post will define cognitivism and the concepts within it.  Major terms are bolded and sub theories within them are italicized.

Cognitivism is the view that moral propositions have truth values.  For example, if I say, “killing is evil”, under the cognitive view, this proposition is either true or false.

Within the cognitivist view, the question of objectivity arises — are these moral utterances true based on some objective standard?  Or are they subjective?

Moral Realism is the view that some moral statements are indeed true, and are made true by some objective feature in reality.  Ethical naturalism and non-naturalism are two views that arise out of moral realism.  Ethical naturalism is, in my opinion, a strange view on meta ethics that states roughly that moral features are reducible in the the universe to non-moral features and can probably be empirically defined. Non-naturalism is the opposing view that moral features cannot be reduced in this way.  Non-naturalists claim that we have access to moral facts via the a priori, introspection  and some special faculty within us that allows us to know and understand morality.  This view, I think, is common among the layman, although they probably wouldn’t be able to articulate it as such.

Two of the primary meta ethical theories opposed to  moral realism are as follows:

Ethical Subjectivism is the view that moral statements are made true or false by attitudes or opinions of moral beings.  This can include a God, giving us Divine Command Theory, or it can include groups of people.  Relativism obviously falls into this category, common among undergraduate philosophy students.

Error Theory is the second congitivist view opposed to moral realism.  First, note that ethical subjectivism attacked moral realism by asserting that moral proposition are true according to subjective standards, rather than objective standards.   Error theory, on the other hand, attacks moral realism by asserting that all moral propositions are false.  It claims that no moral features actually exist in the world and our moral judgments are therefore false.  Error theory happens to be my favorite meta ethical view so expect an entire post devoted to it soon.

The next post will investigate the other side of meta ethics: non-cognivitism.

In other news, the wordpress spellchecker really hates meta ethical jargon.