Let’s Get Ethical Pt 1: Metaethics

In its simplest form, ethics is everything to do with morality – from stealing your father’s cigarettes to lending someone a pen. Of course, there are varying degrees of ethical topics, such as abortion, murder, slavery – just about every aspect of human life. I thought I would start a series of blogs covering the basics of ethics, since this topic is intrinsically wrapped up in how you’re currently living your life and to how you ‘ought‘ to live your life. In this blog, I will lay the groundwork of ethics, giving you everything you need to build a solid idea about what ethics actually is. 

So, let’s get into it!

Also called ‘moral philosophy’, ethics is derived from the Greek word ‘ethos’. The definition is underpinned by themes of belief, character, habits and principles. This includes notions from how to live a ‘good’ life, essence of character and the moral decisions you make. For example, when you decide to hold the door open for an elderly woman, or leave the last biscuit in the packet for your friend, you morals are at work.

Ethics theories can be divided into three categories: 

  1. Meta-ethics: the nature of moral judgements, the origin and meaning of ethics. This is what I will be covering today – whether morals actually exist as fact, or whether they’re something like mere beliefs that we label ‘morals’.
  2. Normative ethics: the content of the moral judgement and the right/wrong criteria. This branch is what you’ve probably heard of, and includes the likes of Aristotle, Kant, and many other philosophers works on ‘how you ought to live’.
  3. Applied ethics: taking ethical theories and applying them to topics such as abortion. So for example, taking Aristotles normative ethical account and applying it to ethical issues of war or medicine.

This blog will be centred on the conception of ethics, meta-ethics. An easy was of describing ethics is comparing the three branches – Imagine ethics as basketball. There are players, who we think of as applied ethicists, applying what they know to different games (different ethical dilemmas). Then there is a referee, who is the normative ethicist – questioning the underlying principles that guide the players/applied ethicists, working out what is right or wrong to do. Finally, we have the basketball analyst, who does not dunk basketballs or play. The basketball analyst is the meta-ethicist, questioning the very practise of basketball (ethics) and comment whats going on in the game itself.

There are 2 main questions in meta-ethics that distinguish where you ethically sit:

  • Are there moral facts or are morals just a projection of one’s personal desires/feelings?
  • Is there such a thing as moral knowledge? 

Whether you reply yes or no to these questions is said to determine your ethical position.

It seems true that adopting an old dog is a good thing, racism is wrong, and torture should be illegal. What is it for a moral to be true? Can we have moral knowledge? You’d think that moral values are true because they make you feel good, or implement ‘goodness’ in society, but then what of psychopaths? Some psychopaths are deficient in emotion, acting as a catalyst for antisocial behaviour and lack of moral judgements. This suggests morals are not purely cognitive, perhaps they hinge on culture and society. Meta-ethics is then the systematic analysis of moral language, moral psychology and moral ontology (nature).

A Few Positions:

Non-cognitivists believe that morals are not truth-apt (can be true or false). When people utter moral sentences such as ‘do not steal’, they are simply expressing attitudes such as desires/approval/disapproval. If you don’t think moral is objective/exists, and believe that morals are just constructed by humans in conjunction with their feelings and attitudes, you’re probably an anti-realist. Anti-realists believe that ethical right and wrongs don’t exist. They believe morality is more like marmite than it is about objective right/wrongs, stating that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ don’t necessarily exist, but it depends on how you as an individual interpret things. Moral relativism is sometimes thought of as a version of anti-realism; holding moral claims express beliefs about morality, advocating for the changing moral values across cultures and societies.

Cognitivists on the other hand, hold moral utterances (sentences/statements) express beliefs, but these beliefs are specifically true or false. So if i was to say ‘murder is wrong’, I am expressing my belief that murder is factually morally wrong. If you think moral facts exist, like ‘murder is wrong’ is factually wrong, and we can have knowledge of this, you are most likely on the branch of moral realists. Moral realists tend to be cognitivists insofar as they think moral statements are truth-apt, and that many of them are in fact true. Moral realists would say that stealing is wrong because stealing has the property of wrongness, independently of whether people think it does or not.

For example:

‘Murder is wrong is a fact, and it will always be wrong’ – moral realist 

‘Murder is wrong because I the action and effects go against my beliefs’ – anti-realist

Of course, there are varying degrees of these positions, such as moral scepticism or moral nihilism. It’s important to note that these positions are just suggestions, so don’t fill my inbox with ‘BUT I DON’T WANT TO BE A REALIST’, be what you like.

Moral realism is said to be the ‘default position’ most people take, it’s considered that this position is true until proven otherwise. A bit like innocent until proven guilty, if you will. Everyone accepts this position as prima-facie correct, but why? 

  1. Language : The surface language we use to express moral judgements such as these parallel that of factual language.  So it is easy to assume that we are all moral realists just by the way we talk to one another. Stating that something ‘is’ implies factual content.

Eg. Murder IS wrong, generosity IS good. 

  1. Debate : The very fact that people disagree about morals (we find moral divergence in values such as incest and cannibalism) suggests that there are facts to disagree about. When someone says that stealing gum from Tesco’s is wrong, this suggests that there are objective good/bad acts and judgements to compare everything to, a real ‘moral’ and ‘immoral’ distinction.

There are many ethical positions to take, and your position will naturally come about in response to ethical dilemmas. Ethical dilemmas such as stealing or lying are involved in your everyday life to a varying degree. But philosophy loves to go that extra step, and creates thought experiments to put things to the test. 

The Trolley Problem: the trolley problem is a series of thought experiments involving the death of many or the sacrifice of a few. Here’s the most basic version of the dilemma: 

There is a runaway trolley that is travelling quickly down railway tracks. On the tracks there are 5 people tied up and unable to move, and the trolley is heading straight for them. You are standing and watching, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will automatically switch tracks onto a different track. BUT, on that other track is one person. 

You have 2 options: Which is more ethical, what is the right thing to do? 

  1. Do nothing, not intervening and letting the trolley kill 5 people. 
  2. Pull the lever, deliberately intervene, and kill the 1 person. 

There are different options, subject to different variables. For example, if I knew that 1 person and didn’t know the 5 people, I’m pretty sure I would be selfish and save the person I knew. If I was impartial and didn’t know anyone, most people are likely to save based on numbers rather than relations, saving 5 and killing 1.  What would you do?

Moral realists say there is an objective right and wrong decision to make here, anti-realists would say it depends on variables such as relation, and moral nihilists would probably say morality doesn’t exist, so it doesn’t matter. Either way, you would make a decision. Not intervening is still an action you have chosen. 

This has important implications regarding normative ethics, the second prong to the trio of ethical categories. Normative ethics is the ethics of behaviour, and how we ought to act. So after you have your ethical foundation such as moral realism (where morals come from and if they are fact), we move onto the category of moral meaning. For example, if you choose to save the 5 based solely on numbers and greatest happiness, you might fall into the category of Utilitarianism, a branch of normative ethics. Normative ethics will be the topic of my next blog, developing on the soil that ethical dilemmas grow from.

The next time you make a decision that was vaguely moral – think about why you did it, and what your views on morals are…

Stay tuned!

Published by Harriet Leslie

Hi! I'm Harriet, and i'm currently a postgraduate student at Kings College London and a freelance medical writer. I hold a first-class degree in philosophy at undergraduate level, and my MA is in medical ethics and law. I hope you enjoy my mini introductions to all things philosophy and ethics.

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