Meta-ethics is the term used to describe the analysis of ethical language; it looks at the questions raised about ethical language such as whether we are stating facts or just opinions when using ethical language. Many people believe that ethical language is about facts that are either right or wrong, for example, “abortion is wrong,” but others believe moral facts are based on the beliefs and feelings of a person, for example, “abortion is wrong because it goes against the sanctity of life.
Therefore, ethical statements are not always just about moral facts, but are statements based on our feelings. These statements cannot be made true or false, as they may be expressions of a view that may not be shared by everyone. When talking about ethical language, people use words such as “good” and “bad” which are usually used to express one’s own feelings and so this raises the question of whether ethical language is meaningless since it is an opinion rather than a fact.
There are two different philosophical approaches to this question. The first approach I will look at is the cognitive approach. According to cognitivists, moral statements describe the world and everyone can have moral knowledge. They believe ethical statements are about facts and can be proved true or false. For example, if someone says that murder is wrong, then murder has the property of wrongness so this statement would be objectively true or false. Cognitivists hold a moral realist point of view. This means that they believe that moral facts are objective facts and are good and bad independently of us.
One cognitive theory of ethics is ethical naturalism; a theory that moral values can be derived from sense experience. This theory suggests that all ethical statements are the same as non-ethical statement in that they are factual and can therefore be verified or falsified empirically. They believe that to see if a statement is correct or not, you should look at the evidence to test the veracity of the statement. For example, the statement “Euthanasia is right,” you could argue that it ends the suffering of the individual and therefore it is right. According to ethical naturalism, religious language is meaningful because are ethical statements can be proved to be true or false.
A criticism of ethical naturalism is that the theory claims that moral statements can be verified or falsified using evidence, but to claim this is to commit naturalistic fallacy. Naturalistic fallacy means the good cannot be defined. This relates to the argument put forward by G.E. Moore in his book Principa Ethica: he argued that ethical naturalism is an attempt to identify goodness with a natural quality and claimed that this is a mistake.
He based his argument on David Hume, who thinks that it is logically invalid to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is,’ or in other words, we can’t infer from a description of how the world is to how the world ought to be. Moore used the ‘open question argument’ to argue against ethical naturalism. For any natural property, it makes sense to ask “is it good?” and the fact that we can even ask this question shows that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ cannot be the names of natural properties in the way that ‘rough’ and ‘smooth’ are. Therefore, if we claim that happiness is a naturally good thing, we could always ask “is happiness good?,” but if happiness is naturally good this question would make no more sense than asking “does happiness make people happy?”
However, it does make sense and so goodness cannot be a property of happiness. If we make statements such “Mother Theresa helped the dying” it is still right to ask “were those actions good?” It is still possible for people to have different opinions, so moving from a factual objective statement to an ethical statement does not work because it leaves an open question that cannot be answered. Therefore the ethical statements cannot be proved to be meaningful using ethical naturalism.
Another cognitivist theory is intuitionism; a theory that moral truths are known by intuition. G.E Moore said that good is a simple, unanalysable property, for example, like colours. Similar to utilitarianism, Moore said that there are objective rights that produce the most good but he said that goodness cannot be defined. Moore said that we cannot use our sense to tell whether something is good but we can use our ‘moral intuition’ to say whether a moral statement is true or false. We recognise goodness when we see it – it is something we just know. He called this a ‘simple notion’ and explained it by saying it is rather like trying to define the colour yellow. We cannot define what the colour yellow is but we can show someone an example.
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