Course description

Meta-ethics is concerned with the metaphysical and epistemological status of moral judgement. Moral judgements are judgements concerning what one ought or ought not to do, or about what is morally good or bad. Metaethics deals with questions such as: “Can moral judgements be true or false?”, “Are there any objective moral values?”, “If there are moral values, and truths about them, can we know them?”, “If so, how do we gain such moral knowledge?” or “Are moral values and facts reducible to non-moral facts?” The overall aim of the course is to familiarize you with the main issues and positions in contemporary metaethics, and to put you in a position where you can give reasoned arguments for your own views on the central questions.

The course begins with two questions to which many positions in the 20th and 21st century metaethics may be seen as responding. The first is G. E. Moore’s famous ‘open question’ argument purporting to show that moral properties (e.g. good) cannot be defined in a non-moral way (e.g. maximising people’s happiness). One can indeed meaningfully ask: ‘OK, that action has the property of making people happy, but is it morally good?’. The second is what Michael Smith calls the ‘moral problem’, that is, the problem of reconciling the apparent objectivity of moral judgements, viz. their representing a mind-independent reality, with their apparent practicality, viz. their ability to explain action under the plausible assumption that if moral judgments motivate us to j, they do so because we desire j-ing.

The course assesses various reactions to both questions. Non-cognitivists, represented by Ayer and Blackburn, emphasize the practicality of moral judgement and deny that moral thought and moral language even aim to pick out real properties in the first place. Saying ‘Bullfighting is wrong’ simply expresses one’s negative attitude to bullfighting, in much the way that saying ‘Down with bullfighting!’ does. Error-theorists, represented by Mackie, say that moral thought aims to pick out real properties. But they also say that there are no suitable properties for our moral thoughts to pick out. So, our moral judgments are, strictly speaking, false even though practically useful. Moral realists say that moral thoughts aims to pick out real properties, and that they often succeed. Dispositionalism and Constructivism are alternative approaches that can be developed in both subjectivist and objectivist directions. Considerations from epistemology, metaphysics and philosophy of language are all relevant in making sense of, and deciding between, these different positions.