Published by PushMe Press Ethics on 2009-07-11

Meta-ethics examines the language behind ethical theories and moral beliefs.
Meta-ethics examines the language behind ethical theories and moral beliefs. Instead of asking “is stealing wrong?”, the meta-ethical philosopher asks: “what is meant by saying stealing is wrong?” So a theory of meta-ethics is a theory of meaning. Consider these three statements:

· Stealing hurts people.

· Stealing is wrong.

· You ought not to steal.

What does each statement mean? The first statement is a description of what happens when you steal. We could test whether it’s true or false by asking you how it feels to have something stolen from you. This is a naturalistic statement, as it describes a natural feature of stealing, that it causes pain.

The second and third statements are normative rather than descriptive, as they have a value-judgement within them. Stealing is bad. But notice how the third statement is going further; it is a prescriptive statement, prescribing or strongly advising a course of action: not to steal.

And what of the second statement? Is it merely an expression of a strong feeling, as the philosopher A.J. Ayer (1910-88) suggests, equivalent to making a grunt of disapproval, such as “stealing, yuk!”? Or is it based on an intuition, as the philosophers Moore and Ross suggest?

Three branches of meta-ethics
There are three branches of meta-ethics which we need to consider.

Emotivism , the theory that all moral statements are expressions of feelings (emotions).
Intuitionism , the theory that moral statements are based on an intuition or special a priori perception, and that goodness is a non-definable objective property of an action,
Prescriptivism , the theory that moral statements have three characteristics: they are universalisable, overriding, and action-guiding.
The starting point of emotivism is David Hume’s analytic/synthetic fork, so called because it gives us two alternative types of language, which states that statements about the objective world can only be of one of two sorts.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-76) argued all statements that are either true or false are either analytic or synthetic. An analytic statement is true by definition: “all bachelors are unmarried”. The truth or falsehood of this statement is contained in the very idea of “bachelorhood”. A synthetic statement, in contrast, can only be verified by sense experience. My brother is a bachelor is synthetic because I can check whether he is or is not married (it’s a statement of fact).

Moral statements are neither analytic nor synthetic, argued Hume, so they’re an expression of emotion or sentiment. The fork therefore has two “prongs”, the trouble is, moral statements don’t fit either the anlaytic or synthetic “prong”, and so are pronounced objectively “meaningless”.

Don’t overstate this though: moral statements are still subjectively meaningful – meaningful to me.

The Emotivism of Ayer and Stevenson
AJ Ayer (1910-1989) argued that statements about reality needed to be verified true or false according to sense experience. Ethical statements had no factual content as they could not be verified true or false.Take, for example, the utilitarian proposition that things are good or bad according to the pleasure or pain produced.

So “goodness” here is a natural property of an action because it can be measured by consequences, (the “naturalistic fallacy” below).

“It is not self-contradictory to say some pleasant things are not good, or that some bad things are desired” (Ayer, 1971:139).
So, argues Ayer, if we can still ask the question “is it good?” after we have asked “is it pleasurable?”, then goodness or badness must mean something else other than the pleasure or pain produced.

Ayer goes on to argue:

The presence of an ethical symbol in a proposition adds nothing to its factual content. Thus if I say to someone, “you acted wrongly in
stealing that money”, I am not saying anything more than if I had said simply “you stole that money”. In adding that this action is wrong I am not making any further statement about it. I am simply evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I said “you stole that money” in a peculiar tone of horror, or written it with the addition of some special exclamation marks (Ayer, 1971:142)
So Ayer concludes that moral statements are primarily expressions of emotion, hence “emotivism”, although he goes on to hint at something else as well: “It is worth mentioning that ethical terms do not serve only to express feeling, but to arouse feeling, and so to stimulate action” (1971:143)

CL Stevenson (1908-79) builds on this last point by arguing that ethical statements do two things:

1. They express an attitude or feeling

2. They seek to move people to behave in a certain way

This second persuasive function indicates that when two people disagree about what is right or wrong, they are showing a disagreement in underlying principles and values.

If I say “stealing is wrong” I am effectively saying “I feel strongly that stealing is bad, and you should think so too!”

Wittgenstein would say that Ayer has made a category error in failing to realise that language is like a game where anything can be ruled in as analytic, synthetic or anything else – ‘stealing is wrong’ does mean something because of the context in which it is defined – it is more than an expression of opinion. There is also a logical problem with the analytic/synthetic distinction. Ayer’s verification principle which states that all statements of fact must be provable true or false, is itself neither analytic nor synthetic; it’s not true by definition and it certainly can’t be proved true or false by sense experience. So is it therefore meaningless?

Test yourelf on emotivism with twenty-two multiple choice questions by Harry Gensler .

What might we mean by saying “you’re a bad person”?
If Wittgenstein is right, that the logical positivists make a category error in their misunderstanding of the nature of language, then what do I think I’m doing by saying “you are bad?”

Here are some possible meanings:

1. You are acting against the consensus view. Most people disapprove of your action.

2. Your action is against the good end which is what most people pursue ( a natural law answer).

3. Your action has bad consequences (ie causes pain).

Note: all these three are natural or observable features of your action. They correspond to the views of an ethical naturalist, a view which Ayer explicitly rejects. But just because he rejects it, it does not follow that I don’t mean something like this when I say “X is wrong” or “Y is bad”.

The naturalistic fallacy
Philosophers like GE Moore (1873-1958) claim that you cannot make a value judgement from a factual observation.

· You can’t derive an “ought” from an “is” – “to define an ethical judgement as a statement of fact is an error”. So saying “he has stolen my money” is not equivalent to saying “you ought not to steal”.

· “In trying to define goodness as a natural property, naturalists confuse the property of goodness with some other non-moral properties good things happen to possess” (Robert Bowie page 67).

· Happiness and goodness are not intrinsically linked. We can always ask, as Ayer points out in the quote above, it may make you happy, “but is it good?” This is sometimes called the “open question argument” because the fact of happiness doesn’t automatically entail moral goodness (smoking dope makes me happy. But is it good?).

Moore has an interesting way out of Hume’s fork. The idea of “goodness” is a simple, non-definable property of an action, like “yellow” is a simple, non-reduceable property of a lemon. Just as yellow can be understood but not reduced further (yellow just is yellow), so “goodness” is not reduceable further.

Good is just good: we know this, says Moore, by intuition .

“If I am asked “what is good?” my answer is that good is good, and that’s an end of the matter….there is no intrinsic difficulty in the contention that “good” denotes a simple and indefinable quality. There are many other instances of such far the most valuable things, which we can know or imagine, are certain states of consciousness which may be roughly described as the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful objects” (G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica 1903:6-10, 188)
Exercise: Searle and the is/ought gap
Here is John Searle’s attempt to deduce a value statement from factual statements. Is it convincing?

Jones uttered the words, “I promise to pay you, Smith $5”.
Jones promised to pay Smith $5.
Jones placed himself under an obligation to pay Smith $5.
Jones is under an obligation to pay Smith $5.
Jones ought to pay Smith $5.
Both A.J. Ayer and R.M. Hare (1919-2002) are non-cognitivists. This means that neither think that saying something is good can be true or false. G.E. Moore would disagree (making him a cognitivist) because he thinks we know what is intrinsically good by intuition and then we can calculate empirically what the right thing to do might be by examining the likely consequences (he shares this view with utilitarians generally). In other words as a cognitivist Moore thinks that you can be incorrect about something being good. Ayer and Hare don’t think you can be correct or incorrect when you say that something is good.

A.J. Ayer’s theory of emotivism seems to have two problems:

1. Moral arguments are pointless because all we are really saying is “stealing, boo” or “generosity, hooray”.

2. It reduces moral statements to almost nothing (it is reductive). There seems to be little difference between saying “I don’t like peaches”, and “stealing is wrong”. But surely there is a difference?

Can R.M. Hare’s prescriptivism solve these problems?

R.M. Hare agreed with A.J. Ayer that when we make a moral statement we are just expressing our own attitude, but he thought that we were doing other things too. He thought that when we make moral statements we are also saying what we think other people in similar situations should do. We are prescribing (telling them) what they should do. This is why the theory is called prescriptivism.

Let’s consider again what the basic difference is between an intuitionist and emotivist.

I say: “you shouldn’t steal”

G.E. Moore ( intuitionism) says I mean: I have a feeling which I can’t define that stealing is wrong, so you shouldn’t steal.

A.J. Ayer ( emotivism ) says I mean: I just don’t like stealing, so I don’t want you to steal.

R.M. Hare ( prescriptivism ) says I mean: I just don’t like stealing, you shouldn’t steal, and I don’t think that anybody else should steal either.

Three essential features of prescriptivism
1. Prescriptive

For a statement to be prescriptive, rather than descriptive, it must prescribe, or strongly advise, a course of action. So although Hare accepts that there is no natural feature of an action (such as pleasure or pain) that determines whether it’s good or bad, nonetheless when I say “stealing is wrong” I am meaning by this “it’s wrong, and I don’t want you to steal!”.

When I say “murder is wrong” my statement means something entirely different from a purely descriptive statement like “lemons are yellow”.

So, says Hare, moral statements are commitments to action , which is something more than just a feeling (as emotivists argued).

2. Universalisable

Hare was a Kantian to this extent: he argued that the nature of moral statements meant they were always universalisable (as Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative suggested).

Hare believed we could reason our way to a moral decision. The reasonableness of saying “murder is wrong” lies in the fact that I don’t want you to murder me. My statement “stealing is wrong” means that everyone in similar situations ought not to steal.Hare believed that two things guided my moral decision: my inclinations, or what I felt I wanted, and my understanding of the consequences of my actions.Both required moral imagination, the ability to put myself in another person’s shoes, and say, as we say to children “how would you feel if I did that to you?”Hare was reacting to Ayer’s belief that moral statements were only expressions of opinion, and Ayer;s argument that there could be no such thing as rational moral discourse.

It’s true that moral statements are expressions of opinion, but so much more than this: they are universalisable, reasonable calls to behave in a certain way.

3. Overriding

Thirdly, the moral “ought” is overriding. It’s a very strong form of “ought”.

“I ought to get my hair cut today”.

“I ought to take a holiday”

“I ought to help my sick mother”.

These three examples show how “ought” can have different intensity: if I say “you ought not to mix purple and yellow” this is an aesthetic judgement about beauty.If I say “you ought not to steal” I am giving a strong prescription: the strongest ought there is.I am saying in effect: “you must not steal, it’s the strongest advice and admonition I can give you”.

So R.M. Hare thinks that when we make moral statements we are not talking about ourselves but everybody. If I say “stealing is wrong” I mean: “you shouldn’t steal” and “nobody should steal”.

Because Hare believes that when we make moral statements we are saying what should be true for everybody, he believes that before we make moral statements we should think about what the world would be like if everybody had to follow our rules. In fact he is a preference utilitarian with a Kantian view of moral language! Peter Singer, the famous preference utilitarian, was his student.

Although R.M. Hare does not believe that anybody can be correct or incorrect when they say something is good (he is a non-cognitivist). He does believe that before we say something is good we should follow a particular method .

This method is universalisability. He borrowed this idea from Immanuel Kant (1724 -1805). What universalisability means is that before you say something is good you should imagine what the world would be like if your statement became a rule and everybody had to follow it.

Imagine you think: “Rory shouldn’t steal that phone”. R.M. Hare says that we should imagine a world where nobody in Rory’s situation can steal phones. Would we like that? Only if we like the idea of a world where nobody like Rory can steal phones should we say that Rory shouldn’t steal that phone.

In other words we have to universalise (universalise means apply to everybody) our moral statements. We also have to live by them ourselves.

Test yourself on prescripitivism by trying this 22 question multiple choice by Harry Gensler.

Prescriptive and evaluative meaning.

Lots of words contain prescriptive or evaluative meaning, not just “good” and “bad”, “right” and “wrong”. With virtue ethics, for example, we found that Aristotle commended various habits of character which lay between the vices of deficiency and excess: courage, self-control, moderation, and humour, for example. If we produce a more Christian list, which words would be in it? Words like loyalty, obedience, meekness, generosity or immorality, lust, greed, drunkenness. Now a word like meek has descriptive meaning. We can describe a meek person as “one who has their passions under control, and so will not be easily provoked”, or “someone who is too nervous to act”, depending on whether you take the positive or negative connotation of the word (the English language being rich in connotations!).

Hare argues that with our list above of virtues and vices, the descriptive meaning is primary and the evaluative secondary. In fact, as I’ve just shown with the word “meek” the evaluation could be good or bad, depending on the meaning I take of meekness (meekness = doormat, or maturely controlled). But with good the evaluative meaning is always primary.
“When we call a car or a watch or a cricket-bat or a picture ‘good,’ we are commending all of them. But because we are commending all of them for different reasons, the descriptive meaning is different in all cases”. (Hare 1952: 118)

What is the descriptive meaning of good in these examples?
1. This meal’s good!

2. Good boy!

3. I had a good holiday, thanks!

4. That’s a good piece of work

5. This car is very good.
Hare is saying that there is more to saying something is good than just our attitude. We are also saying what is good for the world. Because we are saying what is good for the world; before we say something is good or bad we should think about what would happen if everybody had to follow our rule.

Hare believed that once we have decided on our principles we should try to live by them. But we can make two criticisms of this theory.

1. RM Hare’s theory permits all kinds of terrible moral theories. A Nazi could universalise his ideas that Jews should die and it wouldn’t be wrong. This is because Hare does not believe any moral statements can be true or false. As long as the statement has been universalised then it is acceptable.

2. Hare’s theory allows any pointless theory to be moral. We can universalise nose picking on Wednesdays if we want to.

Task 1B

Which has the greatest moral force?

1. You shouldn’t have sugar in your tea.

2. Binge drinking is wrong.

3. You should always put a green scarf with a blue dress.

4. Manet is a better painter than Sikert.

5. Speeding is wrong.

6. You should always keep the law.

7. Murder is wrong.

8. It’s never right to lie.

9. Be kind!

10. Charles Church shoes are the best!


Intuitionists argue that when I say “stealing is wrong” I mean “I have a moral intuition that stealing is wrong”. An intuition is like a hunch, something I know innately. Moore argued that goodness is an indefinable property of an action like yellow is an indefinable property of a lemon. Good just is good, as yellow just is yellow.

W.D.Ross (1877-1971) argues that we know by intuition the idea of prima facie duties. Prima facie means “at first appearance”. Ross also calls them “conditional duties” because they apply as long as there are no stronger obligations present. For example, Ross would argue we should keep a promise unless stronger moral obligations arise, such as the need to protect someone’s reputation, or to save a life.Our prima facie duties are given by intuition, and where they conflict, or when we make a choice, we have an actual duty.

Moral intuition or perception has three functions in this approach:

1) It tells us when one prima facie rule, which at first seems to apply, does not apply because another overrides it. In other words, moral insight tells us when we have exceptions to specific guidelines. This requires us to be sensitive to the situation.

The other two functions are related not to the situation directly but to the general rules.

2) Moral intuition tells us what the prima facie duties are. We just see, by moral intuition, that generally, non-injury is a good rule to follow.

3) Moral intuition tells us what the priority rules are. We just see, by moral intuition, that generally non-injury takes precedence over beneficence (doing good).

Note that the moral intuition is not the same as perceiving a colour, a sound, a taste, a texture, or a smell; nor is it the same as perceiving a physical thing. It is a grasping of a truth. When it picks out morally relevant parts of a situation, it makes use of perceptions of the non-moral kind, but it goes beyond them to certain features as morally relevant, features that call for applying a prima facie duty to the situation. When moral intuition grasps the prima facie duties themselves, it is a grasping of a moral general truth.

The simple theory explained above leaves unanswered the question where these moral intuitions come from. This question can be answered in part by the theory of Virtue Ethics, for example. Our abilities to have correct moral perceptions depend upon our moral upbringing, the moral habits we have formed. Have we formed virtues or vices?

Moral perception can be corrupted or distorted. We can imagine people who always follow a distorted version of the duty of self-improvement and ignore the other principles; for instance, they promote their own pleasure (taking that to be the essence of happiness) and do not care whether they injure others or are unjust in their dealings with others. One might plausibly say that these people have formed defective moral habits- vices.


a short quiz on intuitionism by Harry Gensler.

The seven prima facie duties
Fidelity. Duties of fidelity are duties to keep one’s promises and contracts and not to engage in deception. Ross describes them as “those resting on a promise or what may fairly be called an implicit promise, such as the implicit undertaking not to tell lies which seems to be implied in the act of entering into conversation . . . or of writing books that purport to be history and not fiction” (Ross, 21)
Reparation. This is a duty to make up for the injuries one has done to others. Ross describes this duty as “resting on a previous wrongful act” (Ross, ibid.)
Gratitude. The duty of gratitude is a duty to be grateful for good things done to you and if possible to show it by good deeds in return.
Non-injury. The duty of non-injury (also known as non-maleficence) is the duty not to harm others physically or psychologically: to avoid harming their health, security, intelligence, character, or happiness. (21-22)
Harm-Prevention . Once again, this is the prima facie duty of a person to prevent harm to others from causes other than him- or herself.
Beneficence. The duty to do good to others: to foster their health, security, wisdom, moral goodness, or happiness. This duty, says Ross, “rests upon the fact that there are other beings in the world whose condition we can make better in respect of virtue, or of intelligence, or of pleasure” (Ross, 21-22).
Self-Improvement. The duty of self-improvement is to act so as to promote one’s own good, ie, one’s own health, security, wisdom, moral goodness, and happiness. Ross himself mentions “virtue” or “intelligence” in this connection (21).
Justice. The duty of justice requires us to distribute benefits and burdens fairly. Ross himself emphasizes the negative aspect of this duty: he says that this type of duty “rests on the fact or possibility of a distribution of pleasure or happiness (or the means thereto) that is not in accord with the merit of the persons concerned; in such cases there arises a duty to upset or prevent such a distribution” (21). Thus the duty of justice includes the duty, insofar as possible, to prevent an unjust distribution of benefits or burdens.
Possible Additions to Ross’ List

To Ross’s list we might add three more. Ross might say that these are already implicit in his list, but it may be useful to make them explicit.

· Respect for freedom. So far as possible we should avoid coercion of others and, insofar as we are able, provide conditions of empowerment especially to those who lack them. (Ross might say that these duties are contained in non-injury and beneficence, respectively.)Respect for freedom requires, negatively, that we do not enslave or kidnap others or force them to participate in the activities of our particular religious group. It also requires, positively, that, if we are able, we support efforts to ensure basic health and educational opportunity for those unable to secure them for themselves.

· Care. A second possible prima facie duty not mentioned by Ross is the duty to care, a duty reflecting relationships such as occur within families or between close friends. Some moral philosophers favour adding Care to the list, while others warn that it will be misapplied if used too often to override other prima facie duties.

· Non-parasitism. This is the principle of not being a “free rider.” This guideline asserts that, as a general rule, we should do our part to abide by the rules of an institution in which we willingly participate and from which we willingly accept benefits. This prima facie duty weighs against plagiarism and activities that violate laws.Ross might say that this is included in his Principle of Justice.

How do we use this approach when faced with a situation of moral choice? In the simplest cases, if we have had a decent moral upbringing, we can simply see what moral rule is relevant and apply it.If you are carrying a heavy load into a building and a passer by holds the door open for you, you can see immediately that an expression of gratitude is in order. (You are directly applying the relevant prima facie duty where it is applicable and discovering your actual duty in the circumstances.)

Every prima facie duty is general but has exceptions. In the simpler cases, prima facie duties directly guide us to choose our actual duty, what we should do here and now, in the particular case at hand.

Suppose you observe an elderly neighbour collapse with what might be a heart attack. You are a mile away from the nearest phone from which you could call for help. A child’s bike is close at hand and no one but you and the collapsed elderly person is around. One or more duties seem to say “take the bike and go and call for help,” while others seems to say “taking the bike is wrong.”

On the “don’t take” side are justice and non-injury (it seems unjust to the owner of the bike and an injury to him or her). On the “take” side lies harm-prevention. It is widely known that people die from heart attacks that are not treated quickly. (Note that this seems to be a case of harm-prevention rather than beneficence in the strict sense.) The solution might be to recognize that in this circumstance, harm-prevention takes priority over what on the surface looks like injustice and injury. So the actual duty is probably to take the bike and get help. Besides, it should not be difficult to make up the temporary bike loss to its owner, that is, there might be an actual duty of reparation.The point is that prima facie duties by themselves are often not enough to determine what we should do. We have to see which prima facie duties have priority in the situation we face, and which do not.

An Incompleteness in the Simple Theory
This theory works quite well for many moral problems and that it allows us to reach a remarkable degree of agreement with other people. But it does not yield such a satisfying result in some discussions. For example, when people discuss abortion, some will dig in their heels and insist that non-injury (in relationship to the foetus) applies in almost all cases and overrides any other consideration, while others will say that respect for freedom (of the mother) should almost always override non-injury to the foetus, at least in the first months of pregnancy. This debate reveals that when people place different degrees of value upon foetal life and adult freedom (and ignore less obvious considerations such as the long-term effects of reproductive choices), the approach outlined here will be inconclusive.







Past Questions

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