Saturday, 12 January 2013

A2 Religious Studies: Meta-ethics

Meta-ethics (meaning 'beyond ethics') is very different to the other ethical theories because, instead of trying to distinguish right from wrong, it looks at the language we use to express morality. Meta-ethics is all about language, and asks what good/bad/right/wrong actually mean as words.

A significant issue surrounding meta-ethics is whether ethical dilemmas are subjective or objective. Some will argue that if 'good' has no objective meaning then it is meaningless, and should not be used in ethics.

Similarly, another issue is whether meta-ethics is cognitive (able to be proved) or non-cognitive (not able to be proved).

Because meta-ethics is so different to other ethical theories, you shouldn't really compare it to the others; theories such as util and Kantian ethics are normative ethics, whereas meta-ethics is not. That's why, for example, Ross criticises utilitarianism for being a single-factor theory: Ross is a meta-ethicist and can pretty much get away with attacking normative ethics.


Intuitionism argues that morality is objective and cognitive. Intuitionists argue that we just know what goodness is.

G. E. Moore simply states that the word 'good' cannot be defined. He likened it to the colour yellow - we know what yellow is, but we can't define it. He said quite simply:
"Good is good, and that is the end of the matter."
Moore said that we work out right and wrong by looking at the impact consequences have upon an action. If the consequence is right (Moore argues you'll simply know if it is right), then it becomes good.

Good comes from consequence, not reason. This presents Moore's version of intuitionism as teleological.

Moore criticised other ethical theorists of creating a naturalistic fallacy when they try and define good. By naturalistic fallacy, Moore means that we shouldn't define 'good' by certain properties that we like or desire. If something makes us feel happy, Moore said that we can't therefore define it as 'good'. This could be seen as a criticism of utilitarianism, which argues that something is good if more people experience pleasure from it.

H. A. Pritchard said that working out right/wrong is our duty, which we use intuition to work out. In this respect, the concept of duty sounds a little more deontological than Moore's teleological perspective. So - an immediate criticism - whose version is right?

Pritchard states that when people disagree about morality, someone's moral thinking simply hasn't been fully developed. This assertion is obviously very weak:

  • how can you develop your moral thinking?
  • if someone is wrong in a moral conflict, doesn't that mean there is a conflict of duties?
W. D. Ross, the guy who criticises utilitarianism, accepts that moral duties do conflict.

He tries to tackle the issue of conflicting duties by putting forward a series of duties which should come first - duties which are the most important. He called these 'first sight' duties or, to be more posh,
"prima facie duties"
The duties are as follows:

  1. keeping promises
  2. gratitude
  3. fairness
  4. benevolence
  5. non-malificence
  6. self-improvement
  7. reparation for harm
Obviously, you don't need to know about all of these for the exam - two or three will be more than enough (I'd probably use 1, 3 and 4).

 The strengths of intuitionism are few and far between...

  • intuitionism arguably allows us to answer issues clearly and instantly
  • it appeals to human nature - we do use our intuition to decide right from wrong (for example, when we see harrowing news stories)
  • it is very simple and avoids complex debate as to what is good - because we cannot define good
The weaknesses, however, are pretty lengthy...
  • normative ethics would argue that 'good' can de defined
  • people's intuitions will differ
  • most people see morality as subjective
  • lack of empirical evidence
  • some situations are too complex to approach with intuitionism
  • Pritchard's major weakness of conflicting duties
  • intuitions come from different roots - intuition may be the tip of an iceberg, but beneath the water there may lie a greater sense of cultural conditioning
  • intuitionism will allow anyone to get away with anything
  • Nietzsche criticised Moore's 'yellow' analogy, and argued that one person may see good as one thing whereas one may see good as another, suggesting the issue of
"ethical colourblindness"

  • virtue ethicist MacIntyre simply said that
"The word intuition is always a signal that something has gone badly wrong."

  • Moore's intuitionism is teleological whereas Ross's is deontological - who is right?


Emotivism is a non-cognitive meta-ethical theory which states quite simply that ethical language are only used in expressions of feeling.

When we say 'murder is wrong', we're not saying that it is immoral, we're saying that we don't like the idea. Thanks to the popular criticism from Mel Thompson, emotivism has come to be known as the 'boo/hooray theory'.

A. J. Ayer first proposed emotivism as a response to Carnap's strong verification principle.

When we use ethical language, Ayer argues that we are not judging morality or making normative truth claims - we are simply expressing emotion.

Stevenson is credited with developing Ayer's argument further, and argues that ethical language is reciprocal; when we say to somebody that murder is wrong, for example, we are expecting them to agree.

Brandt attacks Stevenson's reciprocation view, stating that he assumes a
"magnetic influence."
By this, Brandt is saying that when we express ethical language, we don't expect people to agree - it is foolish to presume that our language has a magnetic influence on others.

The strengths of emotivism are as follows:

  • emotivism's subjective nature allows all opinions to be equally valid - it is egalitarian
  • culturally aware - arranged marriage, for example, could be good or bad depending on the stance of different cultures
  • it effectively resolves the argument as to why moral disputes can never be resolved 
  • in childhood especially, it is often true to say that our moral language is intended to be reciprocal
The weaknesses are as follows:
  • emotivism belittles our ability to reason
  • James Rachels argues that emotivism wrongly compares stubbing one's toe to making moral statements, and called moral feelings convictions
  • Mel Thompson famously said
"You cannot reduce morality to a set of cheers and boos."

  • Peter Vardy accused emotivism of being
"hot air and nothing else"

  • virtue ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre argues that emotivism wrongly places child carers and paedophiles as equals


 Prescriptivism, proposed by R. M. Hare, is also a non-cognitive theory.

Hare argued that when we use ethical language, we are prescribing - or recommending - a course of action. 'Good', Hare argued, is an action statement.

The prescribed courses of action must be universal. Whenever we say something like 'stealing is wrong', we are stating that nobody should steal and universalising that statement.


  • straight-forward
  • seems logical and realistic - when we make moral judgements we are often prescribing courses of action
  • if moral commands are universalisable, they are applicable to all and thus easy to follow
  • it solves the emotivist issue of moral language being meaningless - instead they are prescribed actions
  • Mackie argues that if prescriptivism is culturally aware, morality cannot be universal
  • Hare believes in no true or false morality, meaning that, for example, Hitler's universalised hatred of the Jews was not right or wrong
  • disregards the logic and reasoning behind moral statements in favour of recommendation
  • Hare's logic means that any ridiculous theory could be moral. For example, eating burgers every Monday morning could become moral if someone branded it as good
  • there is no reason to follow any moral law(s) - they're simply based on what people want you to do


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  5. Is ethical language essentially a debate about whether it is meaningful or meaningless which we then categorize in to two parts in the exam?

    Part 1 (i)
    Part 2 (ii)

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