Ethics is concerned with what is right and what is wrong. Meta-ethics however looks at the language, it asks “What does it mean to say that something is right or wrong”. In the words of Pojman, “normative ethics is a philosophical examination of morality, meta-ethics is philosophising about ethics -that is, about the very terms and structure of ethical theories.” I aim to explore the claim that all ethical language is meaningless by looking at some of the common statements used in the ethical language and what they actually mean. Firstly let me take the question itself- what exactly is ethical language? Dr Richard Paul defines ethics as “a set of concepts and principles that guide us in determining what behaviour helps or harms sentient creatures”.
Paul also states that most people confuse ethics with behaving in accordance with people’s religious beliefs and the law, and don’t treat ethics as a stand-alone concept. However, according to the dictionary ethics is defined as the “study of morality’s effect on conduct: the study of moral standards and how they affect conduct”. With people defining ‘ethics’ in different ways, ethical statements would have contrasting meanings depending on how you viewed the actual term ‘ethical’.
This idea of looking into the language of a statement before determining whether the outcome/notion would be right or wrong is called meta-ethics. This view of language limits its meaning to something that can be verified by sense experience (i.e. proven true or false). This view can be found in the works of Wittgenstein in ‘Tractatus’ (1921). This initial view went on to influence a group of philosophers known as the ‘Vienna Circle’ who developed the idea of ‘positivism’.
This then influenced A J Ayer who claimed in his publication of ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ that there are only two kinds of proposition being the truths known by definition, and the truths known by reference to sense experience. For example, to Ayer ‘all bachelors are unmarried’ would be known as a tautology because this is correct by definition and thus claims nothing. However, ‘That man is a bachelor’ can be either proven false or true by using external facts (i.e. does he wear a wedding ring etc.). To Ayer both these statements would be meaningful as they can be proven true. However, an ethical statement such as ‘abortion is wrong’ cannot be verified analytically or synthetically (like the examples before could be) and so aren’t meaningful.
On the other hand, F H Bradley argued that the supreme good for mankind was self-realisation, meaning that we choose to go one way or another in life, so that we can join the wider community. Morality to Bradley is about the actions you take which express the character that you are. This is known as metaphysical ethics and is often referred to as depending on two abstract ideas. The first being the world as a whole and the second being self-realisation. Neither of these ideas can be reduced to the sort of empirical evidence that the logical positivists such as Ayer would say, can determine whether it has meaning. Therefore Bradley would say that ethical statements are meaningful. I agree with Bradley in that I can see how you can investigate the world as a whole and individual people’s inner characters I have to disagree with the overall opinion that for a statement to have meaning it must fit into one of two categories. Not everything can be proven through science or experience, but that is not to say it does not have meaning to some people.
R M Hare agreed with my thoughts as he put forward his approach of ‘Prescriptivism’. He argued that an ethical statement ‘prescribes’ a course of action and tells you what one ought to do. It is stronger than just a suggestion of how to behave, but at the same time is more than a command because commands are related to specific things at specific times, i.e. ‘you should tidy your room’ would have meaning. An ethical statement is a general command of how to behave, making it both prescriptive and universalisable. Therefore one can apply logic to the statement and can deduce whether they should follow the statement or not. Hare would not make the decision so black and white that the statement is either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ but would instead say ‘yes I think I agree with the statement and I intend to follow what it says’. Therefore these statements are full of meaning as they prescribe how one should act.
Having said that, many people would not be happy with the above outcome as it is down to the individual and could arguably make excuses for actions that people may do. By following Ayer’s argument it is much simpler and universal as it is not down to the individual, it is either right or wrong through science and facts. Ayer, an emotivist, also felt that ethical statements are not just expressions of the individual person’s emotion but also of their attitude towards the situation. A good example to use- if I say capital punishment is wrong, it’s because I have an attitude opposed to capital punishment which is formed due to my beliefs. Therefore Ayer compared these ethical statements to the ‘laughs’ and ‘boos and hisses’ the ‘cheers’ and the ‘screams’ that people may voice in the audience of a debate.
The statements are meaningless and add no weight to the situation. For example, saying that charity is good you are saying “hoorah for charity work” and nothing more. We would simply be expressing our attitude towards that topic or situation, and in the words of Ayer “I am not making any factual statement… I am merely expressing certain moral sentiments.” Moral and ethical arguments serve no real purpose as everyone has their own opinion but who are we to say which opinion is right? We cannot know from people’s own expressions whether a moral statement is right or wrong, and therefore will come to no outcome so all ethical statements are meaningless.
C.L Stevenson took this further and developed Ayer’s emotivism. Stevenson felt that whilst People’s subjective opinions are often based on objective facts so meaningful ethical discourse could take place. For example; if I say war is wrong it is my opinion and purely subjective. However if we say that war is wrong because 10000 people were killed innocently that is objective and factual evidence as to why so many people believe war is wrong. Therefore ethical statements can be meaningful. Ethical statements also include a persuasive element, which encourages other people to adopt the same attitudes/beliefs as us. Here Stevenson bridges both prescriptivism and emotivism together, and believes that ethical statements are meaningful.
My opinion, however, would be that most people in society would be able to recognise that an ethical statement such as “It is wrong to murder” is prescribing a course of action that will benefit the rest of society. I agree with R M Hare that an ethical statement is meaningful as it provides a guide as to how you should go about your daily lives. Language in general can have several meanings, but this still means each has a meaning. Ethical statements are made up of language, therefore each statement in my opinion is meaningful. You cannot make the decision of whether ethical language has meaning purely based on logic and evidence through experience- some things cannot be reduced to these categories, but that does not mean some people don’t consider this language as meaningless.