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In metaphilosophy and ethics, meta-ethics is the study of the nature, scope, and meaning of moral judgment. It is one of the three branches of ethics generally studied by philosophers, the others being normative ethics (questions of how one ought to be and act) and applied ethics (practical questions of right behavior in given, usually contentious, situations).
While normative ethics addresses such questions as "What should I do?", evaluating specific practices and principles of action, meta-ethics addresses questions such as "What is goodness?" and "How can we tell what is good from what is bad?", seeking to understand the assumptions underlying normative theories. Another distinction often made is that normative ethics involves first-order or substantive questions; meta-ethics involves second-order or formal questions.
Some theorists argue that a metaphysical account of morality is necessary for the proper evaluation of actual moral theories and for making practical moral decisions; others reason from opposite premises and suggest that studying moral judgments about proper actions can guide us to a true account of the nature of morality.
According to Richard Garner and Bernard Rosen, there are three kinds of meta-ethical problems, or three general questions:
Garner and Rosen say that answers to the three basic questions "are not unrelated, and sometimes an answer to one will strongly suggest, or perhaps even entail, an answer to another." A meta-ethical theory, unlike a normative ethical theory, does not attempt to evaluate specific choices as being better, worse, good, bad, or evil; although it may have profound implications as to the validity and meaning of normative ethical claims. An answer to any of the three example questions above would not itself be a normative ethical statement.
Moral semantics attempts to answer the question, "What is the meaning of moral terms or judgments?" Answers may have implications for answers to the other two questions as well.
Cognitivist theories hold that evaluative moral sentences express propositions (i.e., they are 'truth-apt' or 'truth bearers', capable of being true or false), as opposed to non-cognitivism. Most forms of cognitivism hold that some such propositions are true (including moral realism and ethical subjectivism), as opposed to error theory, which asserts that all are erroneous.
Moral realism (in the robust sense; cf. moral universalism for the minimalist sense) holds that such propositions are about robust or mind-independent facts, that is, not facts about any person or group's subjective opinion, but about objective features of the world. Meta-ethical theories are commonly categorized as either a form of realism or as one of three forms of "anti-realism" regarding moral facts: ethical subjectivism, error theory, or non-cognitivism. Realism comes in two main varieties:
Ethical subjectivism is one form of moral anti-realism. It holds that moral statements are made true or false by the attitudes and/or conventions of people, either those of each society, those of each individual, or those of some particular individual. Most forms of ethical subjectivism are relativist, but there are notable forms that are universalist:
Error theory, another form of moral anti-realism, holds that although ethical claims do express propositions, all such propositions are false. Thus, both the statement "Murder is morally wrong" and the statement "Murder is morally permissible" are false, according to error theory. J. L. Mackie is probably the best-known proponent of this view. Since error theory denies that there are moral truths, error theory entails moral nihilism and, thus, moral skepticism; however, neither moral nihilism nor moral skepticism conversely entail error theory.
Non-cognitivist theories hold that ethical sentences are neither true nor false because they do not express genuine propositions. Non-cognitivism is another form of moral anti-realism. Most forms of non-cognitivism are also forms of expressivism, however some such as Mark Timmons and Terrence Horgan distinguish the two and allow the possibility of cognitivist forms of expressivism. Non-cognitivism includes:
Yet another way of categorizing meta-ethical theories is to distinguish between centralist and non-centralist moral theories. The debate between centralism and non-centralism revolves around the relationship between the so-called "thin" and "thick" concepts of morality: thin moral concepts are those such as good, bad, right, and wrong; thick moral concepts are those such as courageous, inequitable, just, or dishonest. While both sides agree that the thin concepts are more general and the thick more specific, centralists hold that the thin concepts are antecedent to the thick ones and that the latter are therefore dependent on the former. That is, centralists argue that one must understand words like "right" and "ought" before understanding words like "just" and "unkind." Non-centralism rejects this view, holding that thin and thick concepts are on par with one another and even that the thick concepts are a sufficient starting point for understanding the thin ones.
Non-centralism has been of particular importance to ethical naturalists in the late 20th and early 21st centuries as part of their argument that normativity is a non-excisable aspect of language and that there is no way of analyzing thick moral concepts into a purely descriptive element attached to a thin moral evaluation, thus undermining any fundamental division between facts and norms. Allan Gibbard, R. M. Hare, and Simon Blackburn have argued in favor of the fact/norm distinction, meanwhile, with Gibbard going so far as to argue that, even if conventional English has only mixed normative terms (that is, terms that are neither purely descriptive nor purely normative), we could develop a nominally English metalanguage that still allowed us to maintain the division between factual descriptions and normative evaluations.
Moral ontology attempts to answer the question, "What is the nature of moral judgments?"
Amongst those who believe there to be some standard(s) of morality (as opposed to moral nihilists), there are two divisions:
Moral universalism (or universal morality) is the meta-ethical position that some system of ethics, or a universal ethic, applies universally, that is to all intelligent beings regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexuality, or other distinguishing feature. The source or justification of this system may be thought to be, for instance, human nature, shared vulnerability to suffering, the demands of universal reason, what is common among existing moral codes, or the common mandates of religion (although it can be argued that the latter is not in fact moral universalism because it may distinguish between Gods and mortals). Moral universalism is the opposing position to various forms of moral relativism.
Universalist theories are generally forms of moral realism, though exceptions exists, such as the subjectivist ideal observer and divine command theories, and the non-cognitivist universal prescriptivism of R. M. Hare. Forms of moral universalism include:
Moral relativism maintains that all moral judgments have their origins either in societal or in individual standards, and that no single standard exists by which one can objectively assess the truth of a moral proposition. Meta-ethical relativists, in general, believe that the descriptive properties of terms such as "good", "bad", "right", and "wrong" do not stand subject to universal truth conditions, but only to societal convention and personal preference. Given the same set of verifiable facts, some societies or individuals will have a fundamental disagreement about what one ought to do based on societal or individual norms, and one cannot adjudicate these using some independent standard of evaluation. The latter standard will always be societal or personal and not universal, unlike, for example, the scientific standards for assessing temperature or for determining mathematical truths. [clarify]
Moral nihilism, also known as ethical nihilism, is the meta-ethical view that nothing has intrinsic moral value. For example, a moral nihilist would say that killing someone, for whatever reason, is intrinsically neither morally right nor morally wrong. Moral nihilism must be distinguished from moral relativism, which does allow for moral statements to be intrinsically true or false in a non-universal sense, but does not assign any static truth-values to moral statements. Insofar as only true statements can be known, moral nihilists are moral skeptics. Most forms of moral nihilism are non-cognitivist and vice versa, though there are notable exceptions such as universal prescriptivism (which is semantically non-cognitive but substantially universal).
Moral epistemology is the study of moral knowledge. It attempts to answer such questions as, "How may moral judgments be supported or defended?" and "Is moral knowledge possible?"
If one presupposes a cognitivist interpretation of moral sentences, morality is justified by the moralist's knowledge of moral facts, and the theories to justify moral judgements are epistemological theories. Most moral epistemologies posit that moral knowledge is somehow possible (including empiricism and moral rationalism), as opposed to moral skepticism. Amongst them, there are those who hold that moral knowledge is gained inferentially on the basis of some sort of non-moral epistemic process, as opposed to ethical intuitionism.
Empiricism is the doctrine that knowledge is gained primarily through observation and experience. Meta-ethical theories that imply an empirical epistemology include:
There are exceptions within subjectivism however, such as ideal observer theory, which implies that moral facts may be known through a rational process, and individualist ethical subjectivism, which holds that moral facts are merely personal opinions and so may be known only through introspection. Empirical arguments for ethics run into the is-ought problem, which asserts that the way the world is cannot alone instruct people how they ought to act.
Moral rationalism, also called ethical rationalism, is the view according to which moral truths (or at least general moral principles) are knowable a priori, by reason alone. Some prominent figures in the history of philosophy who have defended moral rationalism are Plato and Immanuel Kant. Perhaps the most prominent figures in the history of philosophy who have rejected moral rationalism are David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche.
Recent philosophers who defended moral rationalism include R. M. Hare, Christine Korsgaard, Alan Gewirth, and Michael Smith. A moral rationalist may adhere to any number of different semantic theories as well; moral realism is compatible with rationalism, and the subjectivist ideal observer theory and non-cognitivist universal prescriptivism both entail it.
Ethical intuitionism is the view according to which some moral truths can be known without inference. That is, the view is at its core a foundationalism about moral beliefs. Such an epistemological view implies that there are moral beliefs with propositional contents; so it implies cognitivism. Ethical intuitionism commonly suggests moral realism, the view that there are objective facts of morality and, to be more specific, ethical non-naturalism, the view that these evaluative facts cannot be reduced to natural fact. However, neither moral realism nor ethical non-naturalism are essential to the view; most ethical intuitionists simply happen to hold those views as well. Ethical intuitionism comes in both a "rationalist" variety, and a more "empiricist" variety known as moral sense theory.
Moral skepticism is the class of meta-ethical theories all members of which entail that no one has any moral knowledge. Many moral skeptics also make the stronger, modal, claim that moral knowledge is impossible. Forms of moral skepticism include, but are not limited to, error theory and most but not all forms of non-cognitivism.