metaethics = the metaphysics of morality

Two Basic Questions

  1. Is there any such thing as right and wrong actions?
  2. What makes an action right or wrong (metaphysically)?

If you answer ‘no’ to the first question you are a moral nihilist or anti-realist. Generally a ‘yes’ answer to first question is known as moral realism.

We will consider the following 5 possibilities regarding what makes an action right or wrong:

  1. Consequences
  2. Reason
  3. Social Contract
  4. Emotions/feelings
  5. God

Consequences and Reason

Grounding an ethical theory, like Mill tries to do, does not work.

Mill’s Argument for the greatest happiness principle

Let’s reconstruct Mill’s first Argument as follows:

(1) Seeing something proves that it is visible.

(2) So, desiring something proves that it is desirable.

(3) The only thing each person desires is his or her own happiness.

(4) The only thing that is desirable for a person is his or her own happiness.

(5) So, each person should perform those actions that promote the greatest happiness.


Normative vs Descriptive

“Visible” is a descriptive term, it describes things that can be seen. If something is visible it means it is possible to see it.

But “desirable” is normative term.  When we say that X is desirable we do not mean that it is possible to desire X but that one ought to desire X.

Mill makes the mistake of trying to derive the normative claim that we ought to desire happiness from the descriptive claim or observation we do in fact desire happiness.

This distinction between normative and descriptive claims was noted by David Hume and has come to be known as the “Is-Ought Gap” or more commonly in contemporary analytic philosophy the “fact-value distinction.”

He says:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.

For this class we will use the slightly more colloquial “Is-ought gap” to describe this mistake.

Examples of the Is-Ought Gap:

(1) Torturing babies for no good reason causes great suffering.

(2) So, It is wrong to torture babies.

The above argument is invalid. The conclusion does not follow from the premises.


The first claim is a descriptive claim about the effect of torturing babies and the conclusion of the argument is a normative claim about what we one ought not to do. But we cannot derive a normative claim from the descriptive claim.

A good rule thumb to remember when evaluating an argument is that the conclusion cannot contain a normative claim unless one of the premises contains a normative claim.

Exercise: With your partner, come up with three normative claims that could serve as a second premise that would make this argument valid.

Back to Mill’s argument:

(1) Seeing something proves that it is visible.

(2) So, desiring something proves that it is desirable.

(3) The only thing each person desires is his or her own happiness.

(4) So, the only thing that one ought to desire is his or her own happiness.

(5) So, the only actions that one ought to perform those actions that promote the greatest happiness.

Premise (2) is supposed to follow from (1) and (4) is supposed to follow from (1), (2), and (3). What is the formal mistake this argument makes? Is the argument for (2) unsound or invalid. Is the argument for (4) unsound or invalid.

(2) Is invalid as it does not follow from (1). Here Mill doesn’t properly respect the is-ought gap. He attempts to jump from an is-claim to an ought-claim or from a descriptive to a normative claim.

(4) is unsound because (2) which serves as a premise for (4) is false. The argument is actually valid but unfortunately for Mill (2) is false. If (2) were true then (4) would also be true.

(5), which is the central claim of utilitarianism is now is a rough spot. (5)’s problem begin with the fact that Mill has not successfully established that one ought to desire happiness, even their own happiness. (5) is supposed to follow from (4), but (4) is false so the argument for (5) is unsound. However (5)’s problems don’t stop there because the argument for (5) is also invalid. To move from (4) to (5) one would need some additional premise.

Exercise: Discuss with your partner and try to come up with an additional premise that could be used to derive the utilitarian conclusion, (5), from premise (4).


Sidgwick’s Rationalist Utilitiarianism

“. . .I obtain the self evident principle that the good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view (if I may say so) of the Universe, than the good of any other;  unless, that is, there are special grounds for believing that more good is likely to be realized in the one case than in the other. And it is evident to me that as a rational being I am bound to aim at good generally, – so far as it is attainable by my efforts, – not merely a particular part of it. From these two rational intuitions we may deduce as a necessary inference, the maxim of benevolence in abstract form: viz. that each one is morally bound to regard the good of any other individual as much as his own, except in so far as he judges it to be less, when impartially viewed . . .  (Sidgwick 70)

Social Contract Theory

Social contract theory provides a very clear, and in some way compelling, naturalistic foundation to morality.

However, SCT doesn’t get us full-blooded morality. By basing morality on self-interest the social contract theorist must admit that sometimes, and seemingly often, the moral thing to do is do things that we generally think to be immoral.

Emotions/Feelings (Emotivism or Non-cognitivism)

David Hume is considered the grand father of emotivism/non-cognitivism

Hume’s Slavery of Reason Argument

(i)            Beliefs derived from reason are either analytic (to do with the relations of ideas) or synthetic (to do with causal relations).

(ii)          Analytic beliefs cannot motivate except in so far as they lead to synthetic beliefs.

(iii)         Synthetic beliefs cannot motivate if the causes and effects believed in are indifferent to us.

(iv)         Hence, synthetic beliefs cannot motivate unless they point the way to realize some pre-existing desire (from (iii).

(v)          Beliefs derived from reason cannot motivate by themselves (from (i), (ii), and (iii).

Hume’s Motivation Argument

(1’’) Moral considerations alone often motivate.

(2’’) Beliefs derived from reason cannot motivate by themselves.

(3a’’) The best explanation of (1’’) and (2’’) is that moral considerations are not beliefs derived from reason.

Therefore probably,

(3’’’) Moral beliefs are not beliefs derived from reason.

(3b) Moral beliefs either are, or are based upon, moral considerations.

(3c) Moral beliefs are not derived from reason.

[Moral beliefs are not beliefs derived from reason if they are identical with moral considerations and they are not beliefs derived from reason if they are based upon items – namely moral considerations – that are not beliefs derived from reason.]

(4’’) All our beliefs are either based on ideas (reason/thinking) or impressions (sensation/feeling).

(5’) Moral beliefs, therefore, are based on impressions [specifically the sentiments of approbation and disapprobation].

 The verifiability Criteria of Meaning

Df – The only sentences that are meaningful are those that are, in principle, verifiable.

What this means is that the only sentences that are meaningful, whether true or false, are those that are part of the natural sciences.

Importantly, the majority of art, religion, ethics, and even traditional philosophy is literally meaningless.

On this view ethical claims are not false but meaningless. They don’t express meaningful facts but rather express the emotions of the speaker.

‘Murder is wrong.’ = ‘I disapprove of murder.’

The problem with this view is the the verifiability criteria of meaning has been rejected due to various reasons. One obvious problem is according to the theory itself we should reject the verifiability criteria of meaning as it is not a part of any of the natural sciences. The verifiability criteria of meaning fails to be meaningful according to its own standard.

God/Religion as the Foundation of Morality

Plato: The Euthyphro

After running into Euthyphro outside of king-archon’s court and hearing about why Euthyphro is there, Socrates is not convinced that Euthyphro prosecuting his father for murder is the just or pious thing to do. He asks Euthyphro to teach him about what piety and impiety are, so that he can see for himself whether what Euthyphro is doing to his father is a pious act. This, then, begins the heart of the dialogue–a rigorous discussion about what piety and impiety are.

(1) Euthyphro’s 1st Attempt

Euthyphro first tries to explain to Socrates what piety and impiety are by giving him examples. He says, “the pious is to do what I am doing now, to prosecute the wrongdoer, be it about murder or temple robbery or anything else, whether the wrongdoer is your father ot your mother or anyone else.” (5e)

Socrates’ Objection:  Socrates complains that he did not ask for a list of the pious and impious things; he wanted to know what piety and impiety are.

To see why he was frustrated, consider an analogous case: imagine that you and a friend are sharing a pitcher at some bar and you are considering home brewing your own beer. The only problem is that you know hardly anything about beer. So you ask your friend, who professes to be rather knowledgeable about such matters, “what is beer?” He then answers as follows: “Well, this stuff that we’re drinking is beer, and the stuff that the dude over there is drinking is beer, and the stuff we drank last night is beer, etc.” Understandably, you would be pretty annoyed, because what you wanted was an explanation of what beer was–i.e., what it was composed of, what ingredients are essential to beer and make it different from, say, wine or kool-aid. By simply pointing out instances of beer is of very little help to you. Likewise, Socrates is interested in what piety is–i.e., what it is “composed” of, what things are essential to it and make it different from, say, justice or love.

(2) Euthyphro’s 2nd Attempt

Euthyphro then defines piety and impiety as follows: “what is dear to the gods is pious, what is not is impious.” (7a).

  • Socrates’ Objection: Earlier in the dialogue (6c) Socrates has confirmed that Euthyphro believes in the greeks gods and all of the stories about them–e.g., he believes that they fight, and that there is war between them, and that they disagree about many things. Recalling this, Socrates points out that this will prove problematic for Euthyphro’s definition of piety. For if what is dear to the gods is pious (and what is not dear to the gods is impious), and yet if the gods disagree and fight about what is dear to them, then it will turn out that one and the same action will be both pious and impious (since it will be dear to some gods and not dear to others).

(3) Euthyphro’s 3rd Attempt

After some prompting by Socrates, Euthyphro next settles of the following definition of piety: “the pious is what all the gods love, and the opposite, what all the gods hate, is impious.” (9e)

  • Socrates’ Objection:  It is here where Socrates brings up (what we called in class) the Euthyphro Problem. He asks of Euthyphro whether “the pious is loved by the gods because it is pious, or is something pious because it is loved by the gods?” (10a)

The idea here is that there has to be an order of explanation. Either the gods recognize pious things and love them because they are pious, or else the gods simply love whatever things they do, and it is because gods love these things that they are pious. So it looks like we are faced with a dilemma: on the one hand, if we say that things are pious because the gods love them, then it looks like what is pious or not depends on the arbitrary whim of the gods. For what the gods may love or not love seems to be as arbitrary as whether you like or dislike mint chocolate chip ice cream. That piety and impiety could be as willy-nilly as all this seems to run counter to our initial intuitions about what piety is. However, on the other hand, if things are pious independently of the gods, and the go end up loving the pious things because they are already pious, then it looks like the role of the gods is diminished. For why would we need the gods if things are pious and impious independently of them? Moreover, defining “piety” as that which all the gods love is not getting us any closer to figuring out what piety is. For it may be fine and good that all the gods love what is pious, but Socrates wanted to know what piety was, not what a consequence of it was (e.g., that all the gods love it). This leads Socrates to complain, “you told me an affect or quality of [the pious], that the pious has the quality of being loved by all the gods, but you have not yet told me what the pious is.” (11b)

(4) Euthyphro’s  4th Attempt

Again prompted by Socrates, Euthyphro next tries to say how just actions and pious actions are related. He then claims that “the godly and pious is the part of the just that is concerned with the care of the gods, while that concerned with the care of the men is the remaining part of justice.” (12e)

The idea is something like this: justice covers a lot of things–things having to do with gods and men. Piety, on the other hand, only has to do with the just things that concern only gods (and not men). So while all pious things are just, not all just things are pious.

  • Socrates’ Objection: Socrates first concentrates on what exactly Euthyphro means when he says that “the pious is the part of the just that is concerned with the care of the gods.” For he thinks that “care of” indicates bettering something, as it does when someone cares for dogs or horses or cattle. But surely, Socrates argues, the gods aren’t bettered by our pious actions, since nothing we can do can improve the gods.

(5) Euthyphro’s 5th Attempt

Euthyphro then amends his account by claiming that the kind of care he was talking about was the kind of care “that slaves take of their masters.” (13d) And goes on to endorse the view that piety is (as Socrates puts it) “a sort of trading skill between gods and men.” (14e)

Socrates’ Objection:  Socrates challenges Euthyphro by claiming that gifts are beneficial to the receiver, but, he asks, how could the gods possibly benefit from anything that we do?

In response, Euthyphro then claims that our serving the gods simply pleases them, or is dear to them. At which point, Socrates counters that that Euthyphro has now come full circle, since it looks like he is back to the claim that what is pious is that which is pleasing or dear to the gods. Socrates then starts in again, saying that he still wants to know what piety is, and that they “must investigate again from the beginning what piety is.” (15d).  Frustrated, Euthyphro leaves. And so the dialogue ends.

The Euthyphro Dilemma

Divine Command Theory: An act is morally required just because it is commanded by God, and immoral just because God forbids it.

The Euthyphro argument against divine command theory:

  1. Either God has reasons that support His commands, or God lacks reasons for His commands.
  2. If God lacks reasons for His commands, then God’s commands are arbitrary – and that renders God imperfect, undermining his moral authority.
  3. If God has reasons that support His commands, then these reasons,  rather than the divine commands, are what make actions right or wrong – thereby refuting the Divine Command Theory.
  4. Therefore, either God is imperfect, or the Divine Command Theory is false.
  5. God is not imperfect.
  6. Therefore divine command theory is false.

“To avoid portraying God as arbitrary, we must assume that he uses commands based on the best possible reasons. And here are the best possible reasons: God sees that an action such as torture is immoral, sees with perfect understanding, that such things as kindness and compassion are good, and then issues the divine commands on the basis of this flawless insight. This picture preserves God’s omniscience and integrity. But it comes at the expense of the Divine Command Theory, and God’s authorship of the moral law.” (67)

“If this is all on the right track, then we can see that eh pessimism of Dostoevsky ‘s thought is misguided. The absence of God does not mean the absence of morality. God is not needed to create the moral law; indeed, a perfect God is one who fully understands, embraces, and adheres to a moral law not of his own making.

A perfect God cannot create morality through His whims. If God cannot be morally mistaken, it is because His understanding is perfect. But when it comes to morality, it is the understanding of one who does not author the moral law, but rather completely knows that law, and the reasons that support it.” (68)

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