This is the first of three ethical viewpoints presented. As you work through the rest of Unit 1, make sure you can correctly distinguish among these concepts, because they will appear often throughout this course.

In philosophy, metaethics – sometimes known as analytic ethics – is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, and ethical statements, attitudes, and judgments. Another way of saying it is that metaethics is reasoning about the presuppositions behind or underneath a normative ethical view or theory.

Metaethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally recognized by philosophers, the others being ethical theory and applied ethics. Ethical theory and applied ethics comprise normative ethics. In the twentieth century, most work in ethics by academic philosophers was concerned with metaethics.

While normative ethics addresses such questions as "Which things are (morally or ethically) good and bad?" and "What should we do?", thus endorsing some ethical evaluations and rejecting others, metaethics addresses such questions as: "What is (moral or ethical) goodness?" "What does it mean to say that something is good?" "What are the characteristics or qualities of an acceptable or defensible ethical theory?" "What is justice?" "How, if at all, can an ethical theory be justified?" "How do we know or recognize that something is or is not ethically good?" Metaethics seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties and evaluations as such, and not just the content of particular norms or evaluations.


Metaethical Questions

In addition to those given above, examples of metaethical questions include:

  • What does it mean to say something is "ethically good?"
  • How, if at all, do we know what is right and wrong?
  • How do moral attitudes motivate action?
  • Are there objective or absolute values?
  • What is the source of our values?
  • Is it possible to justify our ethical judgments?
  • Can there be a universal ethics, or can there be only culture-dependent or culture-specific ethical judgments or norms that are relative to a given culture?


Metaethical Theories

A meta-ethical theory, unlike a normative ethical theory, does not contain any ethical evaluations. Instead, metaethical statements are statements about ethics as such, and not about problems of ethics as those problems are commonly experienced.

The major metaethical views are commonly divided into realist and anti-realist views, despite the fact that some labels, such as cognitivism, do not respect the realist/anti-realist boundary:

Moral realism holds that there are objective values. Realists believe that evaluative statements are factual claims, which are either true or false, and that their truth or falsity does not depend on our beliefs, feelings, or other attitudes towards the things that are evaluated. Moral realism can be contrasted with moral relativism, which can also be called normative relativism. Moral realism comes in two variants:

  • Ethical intuitionism and ethical non-naturalism, which hold that there are objective, irreducible moral properties (such as the property of 'goodness'), and that we sometimes have intuitive awareness of moral properties or of moral truths. Moral sense theory holds that just as humans have physical senses by which they perceive the physical world, humans also have a moral sense, analogous to the physical senses, by which they perceive ethical principles or ethical facts. Important proponents of ethical intuitionism and moral sense theory were, in the eighteenth century: the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson, and David Hume. In the twentieth century: G.E. Moore's Principia Ethica, and W.D. Ross's (1877–1971) theory of prima facie duties were major exponents of non-naturalism. At the end of the twentieth century the view was revisited in James Q. Wilson's The Moral Sense (1993).

  • Ethical naturalism, which holds that there are objective moral properties but that these properties are reducible to entirely non-ethical properties. Most ethical naturalists hold that we have empirical knowledge of moral truths. Several have argued that moral knowledge can be gained by the same means as scientific knowledge. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle can be understood as having been an ethical naturalist because he argued that, just as there is a nature for each animal, there is a nature for humans, and ethics consists of developing human virtues in conformity with human nature. Some recent ethical naturalists are Richard Boyd, Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, Peter Railton, and David O. Brink. The Roman Catholic natural-law tradition is also a form of ethical naturalism because it claims that ethical norms can be derived from nature. In particular, Roman Catholic theory holds that contraception, abortion, and homosexuality are ethically wrong because they interfere with nature or are unnatural.

Moral anti-realism holds that there are no objective values. This view comes in three variants:

  • Ethical subjectivism, which holds that moral statements are made true or false by the attitudes and/or conventions of observers. There are several different versions of subjectivism, including:
    • Moral or ethical relativism (compare "cultural relativism"): This is the view that for a thing to be morally right is for it to be approved of by society; this leads to the conclusion that different things are right for people in different societies and different periods in history. This view is usually based on a mistaken inference that moves from an observation that different societies do, in fact, believe in or hold to different norms (cultural or descriptive relativism) to the conclusion that people should or ought to hold to the norms that their society actually does hold (ethical or normative relativism). Though long out of favor among academic philosophers, ethical or moral relativism has been popular among anthropologists, such as Ruth Benedict.

    • The divine command theory: Another subjectivist theory holds that right and wrong, good and evil, just and unjust are determined not by nature or human intuition, wish, desire, or reason, but by the will or decree(s) of a transcendent deity (God) or deities. The will or decree of God (or whatever surrogate for God is used in a particular instance of the theory) is known through revelation, sacred scriptures, the rites and rituals of the given religion, the pronouncements of the given religion's prophets and/or teachers and/or priests, or some combination of those. This view was criticized by Plato in the Euthyphro but retains some modern defenders (Paul Helm, Philip Quinn, and others).

    • Individualist subjectivism: Another view is that there are as many distinct scales of good and evil as there are subjects in the world. This view was put forward by Protagoras.

    • The ideal observer theory: Finally, some hold that what is right is determined by the attitudes that a hypothetical ideal observer would have. An ideal observer is usually characterized as a being who is perfectly rational, imaginative, and informed, among other things. Richard Brandt is best known for his defense of this view.
  • Non-cognitivism, which holds that ethical sentences are neither true nor false because they do not assert genuine propositions. Non-cognitivism encompasses:

    • Emotivism, defended by A. J. Ayer and C. L. Stevenson, which holds that ethical sentences serve merely to express emotions. So "Killing is wrong" means something like, "Boo on killing!"

    • Prescriptivism, defended by R.M. Hare, which holds that moral statements function like imperatives. So "Killing is wrong" means something like, "Don't kill!"

    • Quasi-realism, defended by Simon Blackburn, which holds that ethical statements behave linguistically like factual claims and can be appropriately called "true" or "false", even though there are no ethical facts for them to correspond to.
  • Error theory, which holds that ethical sentences are generally false. Error theorists hold that there are no objective values, but that the claim that there are objective values is part of the meaning of ordinary ethical sentences; that is why, in their view, ethical sentences are false. J. L. Mackie was the best-known proponent of this view. The error theory is also sometimes called "moral skepticism" or "nihilism".

Subjectivism, non-cognitivism, and error theory are the only forms of anti-realism: If there are no objective values, this must be either because ethical statements are subjective claims (as subjectivists maintain), because they are not genuine claims at all (as non-cognitivists maintain), or because they are mistaken objective claims. The only alternative is for ethical statements to be correct objective claims, which entails moral realism.

Another way of categorizing meta-ethical theories distinguishes between monistic theories (in which there is one true, or at least one highest, good) and pluralistic theories.

Value pluralism contends that there are two or more genuine values, knowable as such, yet incommensurable, so that any prioritization of these values is either non-cognitive or subjective. A value pluralist might, for example, contend that both the life of a nun and that of a mother realize genuine values (in an objective and cognitivist sense), yet there is no purely rational measure of which is preferable. (See the philosophy of Isaiah Berlin for an example of such a view.)



Metaethical concerns and questions have been raised from antiquity. Plato asked how one would recognize the solution to a problem – and that would include a metaethical problem such as "What is Justice?" – unless one already knew the answer in some way. Plato also proposed answers to the questions, "Why should I be moral?" and "Can there be a universal ethics?" although he used different terminology for them; the Republic contains his attempts at answers to those questions.

Aristotle too raised meta-ethical questions in his Nichomachean Ethics. Throughout the history of philosophy since then, any philosopher who has raised such questions as "Where do ethical norms or values come from?" "How could an ethical theory or norm be defended?" or any other from the list of questions given above – meaning almost every philosopher who has done work in ethics – has dealt with metaethics at least to some extent.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, philosophers dealt far more with metaethics than with normative ethics, and many of them dealt only with metaethics. This has occurred, both in academia and in global society generally, at the same time as there has been an overall decline of belief in moral absolutes, as well as the rise of a greater interest in process and categorization of norms than in identification and application. But there is also a countertrend that is seen and expressed in the ongoing growth of normative theory especially in such fields as business ethics, medical ethics, and international ethics.

Source: New World Encyclopedia,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Saylor Academy Knowledge Check

Last modified: Monday, January 11, 2021, 5:43 PM