Disclaimer: The following information is generally a summary of what I’ve learnt from Crashcourse Philosophy (on YouTube). I do not take credit for the knowledge, I’m only here to learn; and writing about it helps me organize my thoughts. If you are interested, you should visit their YouTube channel called Crashcourse.
Ethics and Metaethics
A branch of Philosophy is called Ethics, which is the study of morality – determinant of right and wrong behaviors. One branch of Ethics is Metaethics. Metaethics is the study of morality itself, asking questions like:
1) What is morality?
2) What’s it’s nature? Is it objective or subjective? Is morality even real?
One philosophical divide in Metaethics is the dichotomy between Moral Realism and Moral Anti-Realism. This is borne out of the differing answers we can have when answering the second question as stated above.
Moral Realists believe that morality is real, that there are moral truths. They believe that there is a simple categorization of right and wrong for every action; much like how science can indisputably prove that something is true or false. In other words, there is something inherently real about morality; thus we are urged to follow it, just like how the nature follows the law of gravity obediently.
Grounding Problem of Ethics when it comes to Moral Realism
Moral realists make a very bold assertion: there is objectively right and wrong to everything. Morality is real; hence there are moral truths. The question is: who decides what is this truth? What is this truth based on? It is unlike science where its proponents can say that science produces scientific truth because of its method. Science involves experiment and attempts to falsify hypothesis, its proponent can boldly say that it is based on facts. But what exactly is morality based on? This is the grounding problem, and rest assure because ethical theorists do have their own answers to this grounding problem. When we explore ethical theories in the next few posts, this will be conveniently solved through basic assumptions; one such example is that God exists.
Spectrum of Metaethical Views
Assuming that the Grounding Problem of Ethics is solved on an individual level, we will then explore the different variations of the Metaethical views. The way I see it, Metaethical views on this matter are distributed into a spectrum, much like the spectrum of political beliefs. The variable that determines where these Metaethcial views stand depends on the degree of which they accept morality as objective within the dichotomy of objectivity and subjectivity. Obviously, moral realism and antirealism are split quite distinctively; since the camps from each side answer the 2nd question differently. Taking examples from Crashcourse, I will explore some variations of these Metaethical views. First, let’s begin with some variations of Moral Realism.
This is the most extreme metaethical view on one end of the spectrum itself. It is a form of Moral Realism, but it on the extreme side because Moral Absolutists believe that if something is wrong; it is wrong regardless of culture, circumstances and time. Moral Realists treat morality as scientific facts, they believe that morality can be applied as universally and as constant as the speed of light and gravity.
A less extreme group of Metaethical views that is the subset of Moral Realism is Cultural Relativism. Within this group, there are 2 variations of Metaethical views: Descriptive Cultural Relativism and Normative Cultural Relativism. Both variations of Cultural Relativists believe that moral standards can differ from culture to culture, but they disagree on why they differ. Descriptive Cultural Relativists say that it is differing moral beliefs while Normative Cultural Relativists say that it is differing moral truths that cause the differences in moral standards of different cultures. It is a small difference indeed, but it reflects the differing attitudes of both camps; which puts them on different parts of the metaethical spectrum. The former group maintains that moral truths is absolute like Moral Absolutists, but recognizes that the difference in moral standards is due to beliefs. The latter group, however, thinks that moral truths are subjective. Make no mistake, Normative Cultural Subjectivists are still considered Moral Realists because they still recognize the existence of moral truths – that morality is real.
Normative Cultural Relativism May Be Too Tolerant For Our Liking
Normative Cultural Relativism seems like a very progressive viewpoint since it encourages tolerance and inclusivity. I mean, who am I to tell other cultures what is right and wrong? They have their version of truth, right? However, this view can also endorse acts that we might consider to be heinous. Take the Nazi for example, if we apply Normative Cultural Relativism, we would come to the conclusion that the Nazi’s methods were simply right in their culture of Germany back in the 1930s. To many of us today, we are unable to accept this viewpoint; because we all subscribe to the historical demonization of the Nazis.
Normative Cultural Relativism Flawed Denial of Moral Progress
A flaw of Normative Cultural Relativism is that it denies the idea that there is such a thing called moral progress. You might think that there are moral progress in our human history; seen from social progress such as emancipation from slavery, and better gender equality. However, Normative Cultural Relativism points out that every culture is right in their own sense, that they hold their own version of moral truth. If every culture is “right”, then there was never really a reason to change; is there? If you believe that there is moral progress, you would find Normative Cultural Relativism less to your liking.
Now we move on to the other side of the Metaethical spectrum, which involved the Moral Antirealists’ viewpoints. Moral Antirealists believe that there are no moral truths. One Metaethical viewpoint under this umbrella is Moral Subjectivism.
Moral Subjectivists believe that moral statements can be true/false or right/wrong. However, the validation does not refer to the actions of the moral agent, it refers to his or her moral attitudes. They believe that there are no moral truths, only moral attitudes. Moral attitudes are very much like tastes and preferences. We all can have differing moral attitudes, or tastes, towards death penalty. The distinct feature of this view is that it does not recognize the idea that there is moral truth. It is hard to accept this, since we were told from young what is right and wrong; almost as though there is something real about morality. Nonetheless, accepting that there are no moral truths; such as in the case of Moral Subjectivists, can pave way to ethical theories that better fit the reality that we have such as Contractarianism. It can be used to endorse the Nazi Regime, but only after exercising historical empathy; instead of judging it by today’s standards. This, however, is my own viewpoint.
We’ve explored some Metaethical views, so now it is time to move on to frameworks that make use of them. We all have our own Metaethical viewpoints, and these Metaethical viewpoints determine the direction and form some basic assumptions of ethical theories. These assumptions are the bedrock of ethical theories, if you don’t agree with the basic assumptions; you will not be inclined to use the whole framework to guide your moral compass. The basic content, or building blocks, of these ethical theories are called moral principles. Moral principles can be used commonly across ethical theories, the permutations and combinations of them form different ethical theories. With that said, in the next post; I will start with the oldest and widest held ethical theory: The Divine Command Theory.
In conclusion, ethics in philosophy can be used to answer our ethical dilemmas that we might face everyday. Metaethic is a branch of ethics, which is a favorable starting point as it can help us diagnose our basic subconsciously held beliefs about what morality is to each of us. To aid in the self- diagnosis, we’ve explored different variations of Metaethical views. To take ethics to a more practical stage, we’ve also learnt the general structure of ethical theories; which I will take time to explore in the next few posts.