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  2.4.8 Meta-ethics

2.4.8 Meta-ethics

Three issues

  • What is the foundation of ethics? Is the foundation naturalistic (a natural feature of the world)?
  • What does the word ‘good’ mean?
  • Is moral language meaningful?

Three terms

Naturalism: the belief that values can be defined in terms of some natural property in the world) and its application to absolutism

Intuitionism: the belief that basic moral truths are indefinable but self-evident) and its application to the term good

Emotivism: the belief that ethical terms evince approval or disapproval) and its application to relativism


  • Whether or not what is meant by the word ‘good’ is the defining question in the study of ethics
  • whether or not ethical terms such as good, bad, right and wrong:
  • can be said to be meaningful or meaningless whether or not, from a common sense approach, people just know within themselves what is good, bad, right and wrong
  • have an objective factual basis that makes them true or false in describing something
  • reflect only what is in the mind of the person using such terms

What does Absolutism Mean?

The Debate about Moral Facts

David Hume and AJ Ayer reject the idea that there is such a thing as a ‘moral fact’. There are simply descriptions of what we see (for example ‘there is a dead body’). The moral part is a judgement I make which I impose on this fact (“How terrible! A murder!).

Notice how naturalistic philosophies take different views about what this fact might be.


Idea of Goodness

Moral fact

Natural law

Eudaimonia – a future state of personal and social flourishing

An internal and externalstate where the primary precepts are fulfilled and realised


Pleasure or Happiness

A feeling which we experience a posteriori which all human beings seek

Situation Ethics

Agape love

An attitude we live by which we embrace by faith which leads to state of well-being for everyone

Note: Kant’s theory is non-naturalistic – because it’s based on an a priori imaginative process of reasoning called universalisation.

Inuitionism was hated by the utilitarians as a non-naturalistic philosophy. “Intutionism is an instrument devised for consecrating deep-seated prejudices”, said JS Mill.

The Naturalistic Fallacy

You cannot move from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’. GE Moore

You cannot add some extra property to pleasure that makes pleasure good –pleasure just is pleasure, said Moore.

Goodness is "one of those innumerable objects of thought which are themselves incapable of definition, because they are the ultimate terms by reference to which whatever is capable of definition must be defined".

Intuitionists argue that goodness is a non-definable, non-reducible, non-naturalistic property of an action, which we grasp by intuition, like the colour yellow.


  • Goodness is a complex property like colour (not yellow). It isn’t simple (one-dimensional) as Moore argues.
  • Most ethical theories do derive an ought from an is. The question is, do they do so validly?

Defences of Naturalism

Utilitarians say goodness can be derived by observation. Just see what people are pursuing, and what they are avoiding, says Mill, and you will observe they maximise pleasure and minimise pain. An empirical test for goodness,

Natural Law theorists argue that goodness is implanted by God (synderesis) and also observable a posteriori in the goals people pursue. An experiential, empirical test.

Situation Ethics argues that goodness is accepted by faith, then proved by experience. The first step, positivism, seems to agree with Moore, as Fletcher argues we cannot prove intrinsic goodness for anything.

Open Question Attack

Used by Moore and Ayer.

It still makes sense to ask the further question: ‘it may be pleasurable, but is it good?”

Exercise: you are invited to go with your friends to Kudos nightclub where you know there will be drunkenness and drug-taking. Your grandmother doesn’t like the idea. You say, ‘but Nan, it will be so much fun!”.

Exercise: Write your grandmother’s reply (using the open question attack).

John Searle’s Argument from the Idea of Language-Games

You lend Brian £1000

Brian promises to pay back the loan on January 1st

Brian doesn’t pay the loan back by the due date

Brian ought to pay the loan back because he’s signed up to the language game of promising, which involves strict obligations to do what you say.

Thought-point: link this to Wittegenstein’s theory of language-games in Philosophy of Religion

Exercise: Naturalists have a defence against the naturalistic fallacy attack. What is this defence?


A theory developed by AJ Ayer from Logical Positivism and the Verification Principle

Originates with David Hume. Statements about the real world are either analytic or synthetic. Moral language is neither, and hence empirically and analytically meaningless.


  • All bachelors are unmarried (analytic)
  • John Smith is a bachelor (synthetic)
  • “Is bachelor John Smith married?” (meaningless and stupid)
  • “Killing is wrong” (meaningless, but hold on, don’t we seem to know what it means?)

Ayer’s conclusion: moral language is an expression of emotion, like saying ‘murder! Yuk!’.

There are no additional moral facts to point to in addition to the descriptive fact of the dead body. We have (my metaphor) spray-painted a moral gloss of judgement over the descriptive wall of the facts.

Cognitive or non-cognitive?

This distinction doesn't appear on the syllabus - but it's important to understand that the imposition of this distinction on the debate about language emerged with the empiricism of David Hume. It concerns the truth-value of ethical statements and the clue is in the word 'truth'. Truth = empirically verifiable truth or analytic truth. Here's a short introduction to this issue.

Problems with Ayer’s View

  • Eliminates a lot of language-games that we play – such as poetry, God-talk, as well as morality.
  • The verification principle cannot be verified, is neither analytic nor synthetic,and so is meaningless in its own terms.
  • Prescriptivism, a theory developed by RM Hare, argues for a Kantian view of language – that moral uses of good have within them the idea that the statement should be universalised. “Killing is wrong means – you shouldn't kill, that’s my strong advice, and I shouldn't kill either”. It is prescribing a consistent course of action which implies a shared understanding of universal precepts (such as ‘do not kill’).
  • Analytic/synthetic distinction has problems in reality. Hume talks about analytic statements being ‘associations of ideas’. But it depends which ideas we ‘associate’ or link together. Example, before Australia was discovered ‘all swans are white’ appears to be analytic. But when black swans were found it becomes synthetic. We can no longer associate ‘colour, with ‘swanhood’ analytically (as a part of the definition).

Essay-writing Skill

You need to practise unpacking the non-technical language as well as the technical vocabulary. In the question below (set in the old specification in 2015, but still valid), the non-technical phrase is ‘more useful than’. More useful than what, and for whom and for what purpose. Try an opening paragraph that unpacks both the technical language and the non-technical language below.

“Meta-ethics is more useful than normative ethics”. Discuss

Example: “Moral statements are matters of fact”.

Answer: The idea of a fact is something the empiricists and emotivists emphasise. But we can say two things: first the idea of a fact is something imposed on reality by the verificationist who needs to establish that a 'fact' exists as objectively testable. Second, that when naturalists talk about things 'beyond' t which we point in making ethical statements, that thing beyond varies from internal feelings of pleasure (utilitarianism) to external objective reality (the eudaimonia of natural law). It is tehrefore both disputable how important the idea of a "fact" is, and also ambiguous about exactly what it refers to.