Summary of “Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics” by A. Miller

For the sake of epistemological hygiene I wanted to take a look at what academia has to say about metaethics. Miller’s textbook is widely recommended and fairly representative of the academic literature in general.

Maybe he’ll enlighten us. The first chapter is just an overview, no need to understand everything.

1. Introduction

1.1. What is metaethics?

Normative ethics deals with questions like “Should we give to famine relief?”. Metaethics is concerned with questions about those ethical questions. We not only want to know the right answer, we want to know why and how the answer is right.

Here is a good classification scheme of metaethical theories:

(a) Meaning: what is the semantic function of moral discourse? Is the
function of moral discourse to state facts, or does it have some
other non fact-stating role?
(b) Metaphysics: do moral facts (or properties) exist? If so, what
are they like? Are they identical or reducible to some
other type of fact (or property) or are they irreducible and sui
(c) Epistemology and justification: is there such a thing as moral
knowledge? How can we know whether our moral judgements
are true or false? How can we ever justify our claims to moral
(d) Phenomenology: how are moral qualities represented in the experience
of an agent making a moral judgement? Do they
appear to be ‘out there’ in the world?
(e) Moral psychology: what can we say about the motivational state
of someone making a moral judgement? What sort of connection
is there between making a moral judgement and being
motivated to act as that judgement prescribes?
(f) Objectivity: can moral judgements really be correct or incorrect?
Can we work towards finding out the moral truth?

Let’s look at some metaethical theories in more detail:

1.2 Cognitivism and Non-cognitivism

Let’s analyze the nature of moral judgements like “murder is wrong” or “eating meat is wrong”. Are these moral judgements beliefs, i.e. can they be true or false, are they truth-apt? Or are moral judgements merely emotions or desires, i.e. do you merely have the emotion “BUH murder!” or the desire to not eat meat?

Cognitivists think that moral judgements are beliefs. Non-cognitivists think that moral judgements are emotions or desires.

1.3. Strong Cognitivism: Naturalism

Strong cognitivists believe that moral judgements are truth-apt and are rendered true or false by facts independent from human opinion. (At least according to one definition. I don’t understand Miller’s definition.)

Naturalists believe that a moral judgement is rendered true or false by a natural state of affairs. What does this mean? It can be explained by the natural sciences, i.e. without woo or the supernatural. (Here’s good definition for the supernatural by R. Carrier: “A “supernatural” explanation appeals to ontologically basic mental things, mental entities that cannot be reduced to nonmental entities.”)

1.4 Strong Cognitivism: Non-Naturalism

Non-naturalists think that moral properties are not identical to or
reducible to natural properties. They are irreducible and sui generis.

1.5 Strong Cognitivism without Moral Realism: Mackie’s ‘Error-Theory’

Error-Theory claims that all moral judgements are truth-apt. And always false because there are no moral facts out there in the world. Why?

Because it’s impossible to imagine how we could access these moral facts and, in addition to that, such moral facts, would be metaphysically queer, unlike all other known facts.

Mackie is therefore a moral anti-realist because he denies the existence of moral facts.

1.6 Weak Cognitivism about Morals without Moral Realism:                             ‘Best Opinion’ Theories

Weak cognitivists believe that moral judgements can be true or false (just like the strong cognitivists) but think that moral judgements are rendered true or false by facts dependent upon human opinion.

This view thus rejects moral realism, not by denying the existence of moral facts (like the error-theory), but by denying that those facts are independent of human opinion.

1.7 Non-Cognitivism

Non-cognitivists deny that moral judgements are even apt to be true or false. They just express emotions or represent desires.

1.8 Internalism and Externalism, Humeanism and Anti-Humeanism

In contemporary moral philosophy, motivational internalism (or moral internalism) is the view that moral convictions (which are not necessarily beliefs, e.g. feelings of moral approval or disapproval) are intrinsically motivating.

…Conversely, the motivational externalist (or moral externalist) claims that there is no necessary, internal connection between moral convictions and moral motives.

Uh oh. I really hope they’ll play Rationalist’s Taboo.

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