In order to define Ethics, we must discover what is both common and peculiar to all undoubted ethical judgments…G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, published in 1903
When asked to define meta-ethics, it is often easiest to comprehend it in terms of the study of ‘What is good?’. That is to say, if ethics is the study of what the right course of action, or how we should act to create the most amount of goodness into the world, then meta-ethics is the study of what do we mean when we say something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. How do I know that my understanding of the word ‘good’ is the same as yours, or perhaps it is completely different? It is these questions related to philosophical concepts that meta-ethics aims to solve.
Meta-ethics, broadly speaking, is an investigation into what lies at the heart of morality. It examines what we mean by moral concepts and where these concepts come from, as well as what they address. A key distinction we aim to make in meta-ethics is between cognitivist and non-cognitivist theories, to do with how we interpret a statement.
Cognitivism is the idea that any moral judgement made expresses a ‘cognitive mental state’. The beliefs we form in our minds can be objectively true or false. So, for example, if somebody said ‘apples are good’, then this should be taken as a proposition, at face value. The belief expressed can be either true or false. On the flip side, non-cognitivism says that there is no truth to what this statement says. Instead, non-cognitivism argues that a statement like ‘apples are good’ does not describe the true reality, and instead expresses something else, such as a prescriptive command (e.g. we should eat apples) or an emotional state (e.g. hooray, apples!). The way we use language to describe goodness and badness is ‘opinionated’ rather than objectively true.
Either one of these beliefs about how we interpret concepts can have dramatic implications on how we interpret the law. If we take a cognitivist view, and see statements like ‘stealing as wrong’, or other common laws as objectively true or false, as cognitivism would like us to, then how can it be that there are different legal prosecutions for each case of theft? Under this view, the theft of a chocolate bar and the theft of the $830 million Mona Lisa both fall under the same statement, and therefore deserve the same punishment, so this clearly cannot be the case. Instead, we have to consider to what ‘degree’ something counts as being wrong, or what the total damage was, in which case, the sense of objective truth begins to become lost in our decisions. Cognitivism advocates that we should take a broad approach to define simple statements as being true or false, but sometimes it is not as easy to determine objective facts. Different cases make different claims about how wrong or right an action was. We cannot simply change our statement to say ‘stealing priceless works of art is wrong, but stealing a chocolate bar is not’, because it is still wrong to steal a chocolate bar, but somehow not to the same extent. If we begin to bring in vague concepts like ‘stealing a chocolate bar is sometimes wrong’, this complicates our understanding of the language we use, as we begin to express more of an opinion than a fact.
Conversely, different problems arise when we consider a non-cognitivist view. The idea that statements within the law, like ‘murder is wrong’, do not express objective truths and instead express an ‘opinion’, suggests that there is some negation as to whether it it is actually wrong to kill a person. If we instead interpret a statement like this in a prescriptive way, such as ‘you should not kill a person’, or an emotive way, like ‘boo, murder!’, then it is much easier to argue that the action was actually right. Laws are written with the intention that they help all members of a society, but a non-cognitivist interpretation of them would suggest they are only a ‘suggestion’ as to what we should do, and not a complete binding rule book we must all stick to. In this way, it can seem less wrong to one person, than the rest of us perceive it to be, to commit a murder, and this puts the law in a very precarious place. People can abuse the idea that laws are no longer strictly enforceable, as they are not true statements, but only ideas from society. It is only current societal restraints that prevent various people from doing so.
Another distinction between meta-ethical concepts can be made by determining the nature and existence of concepts like ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’, and there are two primary schools of thought for this. The first, moral realism, suggests that there are such things as mind independent moral properties and facts. For example, when we say that ‘murder is wrong’, not only is it true or false as cognitivism would suggest, but it is also ‘definitely’ true or false, because the actual concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ exist independently of the mind and the idea of ‘murder’ innately possesses the idea of ‘wrongness’, alongside it. This seems like a good way of looking at statements within the law, as the objectivity of something being innately right or wrong seems appealing from a judicial perspective, and makes decisions easier. However, problems similar to cognitivist problems arise here. If there is such a thing as innate ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of a concept, how is it possible that there are multiple different interpretations of what is good and bad in different societies around the world. In some societies, there is still state discrimination and sexism, while in others, attempts have been made to reduce these ideas within their laws. If each concept like ‘discrimination’ and ‘sexism’ has an inherently attached ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’, then a moral realist perspective cannot account for variations in how these concepts are treated across different parts of the world.
The alternative to moral realism is moral anti-realism. Rather than having concepts like ‘goodness’ and ‘wrongness’ being mind independent objective concepts which are properties of different acts, as moral realism states, moral anti-realism suggests that here are no such thing as mind independent moral properties and facts. In most theories of moral anti-realism, the way we have moral concepts is through having ‘created’ them in our own minds. Over time, humanity and society have developed together their own definitions of ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’, and these are what we describe when we use the terms. This explains the discrepancies in different laws around the world, but makes it difficult to make true, ‘correct’ judgments. If there is no such thing as an objective ‘good’ thing, how do we know that our societies’ definitions of good are the right ones to use? And by extension, should we ever be certain of a legal judgement like ‘murder is wrong’, enough that it can be written as law?
While meta-ethics seems to pose more problems than it solves for the legal world, a basic understanding of it helps us justify how we make our decisions and how the law has been written over time. Do we believe that there are concrete, cognitivist statements, which can be true or false in our laws, or does it seem that the law is based off suggestion? Moreover, is a realist interpretation, where we can do ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ with certainty, a useful definition, or is there no such thing as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in the first place, and humans have invented the concept to give society order? We will likely never know, but knowledge of the possibilities allows us to see how the law we live by has been shaped by different understandings of ethics.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2004) ”Moral Cognitivism vs. Non Cognitivism” https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/moral-cognitivism/
- A. J. Ayer (1936) ”Language, Truth and Logic”
- David Hume (1739) ”A Treatise of Human Nature”
- Philosophy A Level (2020) ”Overview – Metaethics” https://philosophyalevel.com/aqa-philosophy-revision-notes/metaethics/