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What is meant by meta-ethics? Essay

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Ethics is the study of moral standards and conduct. For this reason, the study of ethics is also often called “moral philosophy,” meaning “What is good?” “What is bad” etc. However, Meta-ethics is the study of this moral language and of what different people mean when they use ethical terminology.

There are many accepted schools of thought that give definitions of ethical language. Meta-ethics is the study of how these theories account for moral language. Take, for example, Ethical Naturalism; this theory takes it origins from the teachings of Aristotle. Aristotle believed that everything in the universe has a purpose, which he called its ‘final cause,’ for which it has been designed. In fulfilling this purpose things can achieve ‘goodness.’ From this Ethical naturalists believe that ‘good’ can be explained in terms of features of the natural world.

However, ethical non-naturalists believe that you cannot determine goodness in terms of natural phenomena. They believe that goodness is simply a term we use to describe something, not something which can be discovered within the nature of something. To ethical non-naturalists, ethical statements can be reduced to non-ethical ones, without denying that they are meaningful. G.E Moore accused ethical naturalists as committing what he called the ‘naturalistic fallacy;’ that is deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. To avoid doing this, Moore came to the conclusion that ‘good’ was not a term that could be defined or explained by anything basic, this makes him an ethical non-naturalist.

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Moore believed that ‘good’ was a term that we use to describe something, something that things can possess that we can recognise and understand, but not define; like the colour yellow for example: we know what it is and can recognise it, but cannot define or describe it. Moore’s ideas led to an approach called ‘intuitionism’ (although this was not named by Moore himself). Intuitionists not attempt to explain the word ‘good’ but argue that we know what goodness is through our intuition and hence that moral judgements are self evident. (The only problems with this is that different people will consider different things as good or bad whereas nobody would try and tell a painter that the wall he has painted is purple not yellow and so moral judgements will be self evident in different ways to other people.)

Logical positivists on the other hand, believe moral language to be non-cognitive, that is to say that it does not give any information but merely expresses the emotions or feelings of the person using it. Two approaches sprung from this branch of thought: Emotivism and prescriptivism. Emotivists believe that by saying something is ‘good’ you are saying that you approve of it, and in saying something is bad, you disapprove of it.

Therefore, there can be no factual evidence for, or to the contrary of moral judgements as they are merely expressions of opinion and are based on personal values, not facts. Prescriptivists take this one step further by arguing that by saying that something is ‘good’ you are not only saying that you approve of it, but you are prescribing this course of action to everyone in this particular situation. This theory was suggested by R.M Hare in his book The language of Morals [1952]. Prescriptivists, therefore, believe that ethical claims are expressions of personal values and prescribed courses of actions that are universalizable.

b) “Everyone knows what is good” Discuss

In this statement, firstly we must address the word ‘knows’. This would suggest that even if they choose to do otherwise, everyone instinctively knows what is the right thing to do. This school of thought is called Intuitionism as was developed by G.E Moore. Intuitionists do not attempt to explain the word ‘good’ but argue that we know what goodness is through our intuition, in the same way that we know what , for example, yellow is; we cannot describe it, but we can recognise it. Hence they believe that moral judgements are self evident. The only problem with this is that different people will consider different things as good or bad whereas nobody would try and tell a painter that the wall he has painted is purple not yellow and so moral judgements will be self evident in different ways to other people.

Another word that must be addresses is ‘everyone.’ Now most non-religious people would accept that we gain our morality from our up bringing and our culture. From childhood, we our taught what is considered to be right and wrong in our society. Therefore, someone on one side of the world can grow up thinking that cannibalism is wrong, and another in a different part of the world can think it is right. Therefore, what is “good” varies around the globe.

Another school of thought that sprung from Logical Positivism believes that no one can ever know what is good, as moral language is pure an expression of emotions or feelings at a particular time. This is called Emotivism. Therefore, you can replace “x is good” with “I approve of x”. Now the likelihood of the entire world approving of one thing is extremely slim.

Religious people, however, believe that our conscience is God’s voice telling us what to do and would argue that God does tell everyone the same thing but some people choose to ignore it. So a Christian standpoint may agree with the title statement and say that “Everyone knows what is good, but everyone does not obey.”

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