What is Your Meta-Ethical Position?

Often when we think about morality, we’re thinking about normative ethics—what things are right, and what things are wrong. When we’re thinking about normative ethics, we might ask questions like “Is it ever ok to lie?” or make statements like “Murder is unjust” and “It is good to give to charity.” We will refer to these types of statements as moral claims.

We can also take a step back and ask questions about what morality is on a more fundamental level. We might ask questions like “Is morality real?” “Does culture determine which moral claims are true?” and “Would moral facts exist if humans didn’t?” These types of questions fall in the domain of meta-ethics.

I’m going to walk you through a flowchart to determine where you fall as a meta-ethical thinker, which will also serve as a classification scheme for the major theories in meta-ethics. Remember, these are theories about what morality is on a fundamental level, so you won’t see a category for utilitarianism or deontology. Those are normative ethical theories, which tell you what things are right and wrong, and how one ought to behave. Rather, this classification is of theories which attempt to describe the nature of morality, regardless of morality’s specific requirements.

Are Moral Claims Truth-Apt?

“Truth-apt” means “having the capacity to be true or false.” Here are some examples of truth-apt sentences.

Both of these statements have the capacity to be true or false. The first is in fact true, and the second is in fact false. So both are truth-apt. Here’s another:

There is some fact of the matter about whether the universe extends infinitely. Even though the truth value of this sentence is unknown, and may be impossible to know, it is either in fact true, or in fact false. So this is also a truth-apt sentence.

Colloquially we might refer to the sentence “I don’t like stealing” as subjective, because only the speaker can know for sure if it’s true, and because it deals exclusively with the speaker’s own internal experience. But there is still a fact about what the speaker is actually experiencing. It’s possible she might not dislike stealing, for example—maybe after robbing a bank I get caught by the cops, and in a pitiful attempt at deceiving them I exclaim, “I don’t even like stealing!” Remember that to be a truth-apt sentence, a sentence merely has to have the capacity to be true or false. This sentence definitely has the capacity to be false! So it is a truth-apt sentence. (Rule of thumb: if it’s possible for a sentence to be a lie, then the sentence is truth-apt.)

Can you think of a non truth-apt sentence? Try to think of one before you go on.

Here’s one:

The sentence “Wow,” seems like it can’t exactly be true or false. It’s just an expression, which typically corresponds to some emotion, but which doesn’t make any claims. So it’s not the type of thing we can assign a truth value to.

Here’s one of the same type:

Both “Wow,” and “Stealing—ugh!!!” are called emotive sentences. These are important; later we’ll explore a meta-ethical theory which says moral claims are actually just emotive sentences in disguise. E.g., when someone says “Stealing is wrong,” maybe what they really mean is just “Stealing—ugh!!!”

Notice the important difference between “I don’t like stealing” and “Stealing—ugh!!!” The former has the capacity to be true or false, while the latter is related in terms of subject matter but does not have that capacity. There is no way for “Stealing—ugh!!!” to be false.

Here’s another way you could re-interpret the sentence “I don’t like stealing” so as to make it non truth-apt.

“Please don’t steal,” could be said with more or less authentic feeling behind it, but it can’t exactly be false. Similarly, it’s not really true, either. So this sentence and other imperative sentences (sentences where you are telling or asking someone to do something) are not truth-apt.

Finally:

Nonsense can’t be true or false. So nonsense isn’t truth-apt.

Do you think moral claims are truth-apt? Let’s use the sentence “Lying is wrong,” as our example of a moral claim. On one interpretation, the sentence is making a claim about some fact in the world. It could be communicating something like “There are moral laws out there, and they say you shouldn’t lie.” If this is how you interpret moral claims, you might believe that they are truth-apt.

But maybe you think that when someone says “Lying is wrong” what they actually mean is something like “Lying—ugh!!!” or “Please don’t lie.” As we’ve seen, these sentences are not truth-apt.

Meta-ethical theories fall into two broad classes based on whether they interpret moral claims as truth-apt or non truth-apt. This is weird and annoying, because the question of how to properly interpret someone’s moral claim isn’t actually a question about the nature of morality, but about the intentions of the speaker, and speakers can mean different things. It’s completely possible that when I say “Lying is wrong,” what I mean is “There are moral laws out there, and they say you shouldn’t lie,” but when you say “Lying is wrong” you mean “Lying—ugh!!!” So, some moral claims may be truth-apt while others aren’t.

As we progress down the flowchart of meta-ethical theories, keep this in mind—some branching points come from disagreements about what morality is, while others come from disagreements about what people intend to communicate when they make moral claims. The question of what a speaker intends to communicate when they make a moral claim is an empirical question, and I think it’s safe to say that different people mean a variety of different things when they make moral claims. So I don’t think it makes sense to unreservedly jump on board with a conclusion about how to correctly interpret all moral claims. Someone can always come along and be like “Actually, when I make a moral claim I mean something totally different from what your theory says I mean,” and I guess you could just insist that they are lying or very confused about their own internal experience, but that seems like a silly thing to commit yourself to doing all the time.

With that said, an interesting and more useful way to think about this first node of the flowchart is to ask about your own intentions when you make moral claims. When you make a moral claim, is it truth-apt? Examining what you mean when you make a moral claim tells you something about how you usually think about morality (at least when you’re speaking), so that might be a good place to start when coming up with your default theory of meta-ethics.

Here are some questions to help you think about whether your moral claims are truth-apt.

Do you think that you have ever made a moral claim that turned out to be false? Think back over the course of your life, maybe to when you were a child. If you can recall a time when you made a moral claim that you feel you later learned was wrong (you didn’t just change your mind, but discovered the claim to be false) that’s an indicator that you think of your moral claims as truth-apt.

Think back to the last time you made a moral claim, or think of a moral claim you might plausibly make in the coming weeks. Would you feel satisfied rephrasing the moral claim as an emotive or imperative sentence, or would the rephrasing fail to capture your full meaning? For example, if your moral claim was “It’s wrong for you to yell at me,” would your meaning be captured by a rephrasing in the form “Don’t yell at me,” or “You’re yelling at me—ugh”? If an emotive or imperative phrasing seems to capture what you mean by a moral claim, that’s one indicator your moral claims aren’t truth-apt.

I don’t make a ton of explicit moral claims; usually I avoid talking about morality and just make statements about feelings (they’re so much less confusing). But when I do make a moral claim, I do so with the sense that I am communicating a fact about the world. If I say “Lying is wrong,” and then introspect on what I meant by that statement, I realize that I intended to communicate something like: “Moral laws exist in some sort of robust ontological way, and one of those moral laws says that people shouldn’t lie.” This statement has the capacity to be true or false (and I actually think it’s false, but we’ll get to that later), so it is a truth-apt statement.

Ok, you’ve had plenty of time to come to your conclusion, right? Let’s explore the “no” option.

If you said that moral claims are not truth-apt, you’re a non-cognitivist. You have two main options within non-cognitivism, which we’ve already talked about a bit. You could say that moral truths are properly interpreted as imperatives, or as emotives. If you say imperatives, then you’re called a universal prescriptivist. If you say emotives, then you’re a (wait for it) emotivist.

Keep in mind that universal prescriptivism and emotivism differ based on what they say moral claims mean, and the meaning of a moral claim is typically thought to depend on the intention of the speaker. So if you strongly prefer one of these theories over the other, you may have some bullets to bite if a moral reasoner comes along and tells you that they don’t actually mean what your theory says they mean.

Do you notice anything missing under non-cognitivism? Any other ways moral claims could be non truth-apt?

Well, maybe you think a moral claim falls into the same category as “Travel trips taken away around the home.” Maybe peoples’ concepts of rightness and wrongness are somehow internally inconsistent to the point of being completely incomprehensible. It could be that people are deeply confused when they try to make moral claims, and are not actually saying anything meaningful at all—moral claims are just nonsense. This is a weird way you could be a non cognitivist. As far as I know, there isn’t a name for this position (and it’s probably going to be hard to defend, so don’t say you got it from me).

If you said that moral claims are truth-apt, you’re a cognitivist! You believe that moral claims have the capacity to be true or false. My next question for you: Are any moral claims actually true?

It seems like a redundant question, but it’s not. Let’s go back to my statement about lying. I mentioned that when I make the statement “Lying is wrong,” what I mean is “There are moral laws out there, and they say you shouldn’t lie.” I’m actually making two claims with that statement: one about the existence of moral laws, and the other about what those moral laws say. Packaged into my sentence “Lying is wrong” is an implicit claim that moral laws exist. But maybe moral laws don’t exist! If moral laws don’t exist, then my sentence is false.

I think that when I make moral claims, and when many people make moral claims, they are making an implicit claim that moral laws exist in some sort of robust ontological way. I don’t think moral laws exist in any sort of robust ontological way, so I think that moral claims are generally false. That makes me an error theorist.

Any nihilists in the room? Nihilism is a broad category which encompasses all the meta-ethical theories which don’t believe there are true moral claims. That is, error theory and non-cognitivism.

If you said that some moral claims are true, congratulations—you’re a moral realist!

You now have to determine whether moral facts are “objective.” In other words, is the truth of a moral claim independent of whether people believe it to be true?

You might hear philosophers ask this question by saying “Are moral claims mind-independent?” This phrasing can be confusing, because a moral claim can refer to facts about minds while still being mind-independent in the way philosophers use the word. For example, a true moral claim might be “It’s good to make people happy.” This claim is not mind-independent in the sense that it has nothing to do with minds—it has a lot to do with minds, because it is talking about happiness, a thing that exists entirely inside of minds. But it might be mind-independent in the philosophical sense, in which it is a true statement regardless of whether people believe it to be true.

Here’s a question to help you out: Is it conceivable for every person in the world to be incorrect about a particular moral fact? If so, you probably believe that moral facts are independent of whether people believe them to be true. That would make you a moral objectivist.

Some questions the moral objectivist should be prepared for: How do we interact with moral truths in a way that allows us to gain evidence about what they are? Are they causally impacting our beliefs about them, and if so, how? (Causal impact seems like a necessary assumption, if we think that we are able to form true beliefs about morality.) Moral facts presumably aren’t physical things, so if they are causally impacting our beliefs about them, does that commit you to belief in some sort of non-physical entities that can interact with the physical universe?

Ok, maybe you said that the truth of a moral claim is not independent of peoples’ beliefs about it.

So, whose beliefs determine the truth of moral claims? You have three main options within the realm of standard meta-ethics: individuals, society, or God.

You could say that the truth of a moral claim depends on the beliefs of the person making the claim, aligning you with subjectivism. You may think that if someone believes lying to be wrong, then lying is wrong for them. So the statement “Lying is wrong” is true when that person says it, but may not be true for different person who believes that lying is fine.

The aspiring subjectivist might have some bullets to bite when they consider the existence of people generally considered to be really bad. If a psychopath believes murder is good, then is it really true that murder is the right thing for him to do?

Maybe you can fix the psychopath problem by saying that instead, the truth of a moral claim is dependent on the society in which the speaker lives. This would put you in the relativism camp. Perhaps in my society, murder is widely considered to be wrong, and therefore when I say “Murder is wrong,” I make a true statement.

Relativists have some bullets to bite as well though. You might worry about the fact that relativism doesn’t seem to allow for moral progress over time. For example, you probably have the intuition that slavery is morally wrong, and that societies become morally better by virtue of abandoning slavery. But the relativist thinks that if a society deems a practice moral, then that practice is moral, for the people in that society. Since slavery was considered moral in early America, slavery was moral in early America. When American society began to disavow the practice of slavery it wasn’t becoming better, it’s just that moral rules were shifting in time with the shifting social consensus.

Finally, you might say that moral claims are made true by virtue of the fact that God believes or commands them to be true, making you a divine command theorist.

Be careful not to confuse this with conceptions of God in which he is all-good but does not make moral claims true or false by believing or commanding them to be so. Not everyone who believes in God is a divine command theorist, including most Catholics and Protestants. Divine command theory says that God’s commands/beliefs are what determine the truth values of moral claims, which goes beyond a belief that God is all-good.

Wrapping up, a note on the terms “objectivism” and “realism.” I use “realism” to denote any theory which says some moral claims are true, and “objectivism” to further specify which among those theories posits “mind-independence.” This is an accepted way of doing things, but it is also common for philosophers to use “objectivism” and “realism” interchangeably. Specifically, it’s common to see both words used when singling out the mind-independent theories — both words being used to indicate what I have called “objectivism.”

This means, among other confusing things, that you may see subjectivism referred to in philosophical literature as an anti-realist position, even though I have specifically classified it as realist! In that case, the word “realist” is being used as a synonym for what I call “objectivist.”

I prefer the classification scheme I’ve presented here, because it gives you a label for all theories which say there are true moral claims (realism), regardless of what they say makes those moral claims true. “Theories which think there are true moral claims” feels like an important category to have, and if you treat objectivism and realism as synonyms, you no longer have a unique label for that category. But I’ve heard reports that using “objectivism” and “realism” as synonyms might actually be the more common way of doing things, so it’s important to keep in mind that these terms are disputed.

There you have it! Here’s the full flowchart. Leave me a comment to let me know where you ended up, whether you align with one of the theories outlined here, or are in a category all your own.

Rationalist. Ex-fundamentalist. Tutor of economics, philosophy, math. Might be a utility monster.

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