At every level of philosophical enquiry into moral theory, from the introductory to the advanced, the question of the objectivity or subjectivity of moral judgements resurfaces. Are there moral truths—or only opinions and beliefs? If there are such truths, how can we come to know them? Can one coherently deny that any moral opinion is better than any other? And could one simply turn one’s back on morality and, if so, what would this involve?
Metaethics is the study of these and related questions. Unlike the practitioners of ‘normative ethics,’ the metaethicist need not take a position on what anyone may do, or ought to do or is forbidden to do, or on what is morally right or wrong. He or she is interested rather in how moral language and moral thought work, no matter what the contents of anyone’s set of moral beliefs may be or what their practices amount to.
My aim in this book is to address the central questions of metaethics and to give serious answers to them. In writing it, I wanted to present a coherent and positive argument for the existence of moral knowledge that would be persuasive in the face of the possibility that morality is both a natural phenomenon and a human invention. At the same time, I was dissatisfied with many textbook presentations of the ‘isms’ of moral theory. It is all too easy to lose one’s way in a forest of taxonomy and then to abandon all hope and fall back on dogmatism or nihilism. I had in mind a freer sort of enquiry and one that would decisively eliminate both of those options.
It occurred to me that there was a model that might prove useful. Facing an array of competing claims and systems, and saddled with a scholastic vocabulary that had long supported debate and discussion without answering any fundamental questions about the world, a philosopher had once responded by adopting, first, a posture of scepticism—indeed of hyperbolic doubt. Professing to reject all previous systems, he attempted to derive important results in ontology as well as an understanding of human epistemological competence by arguing in a strict linear fashion from his ‘first-person’ standpoint. Although there is much to dispute as well as to admire in his argumentation, Descartes’s strategy is agreed to have paid off handsomely. So I resolved to attempt a similar strategy, inventing an Enquirer who, in a state of uncertainty and confusion, decides to adopt the assumption that nothing is really good or bad, obligatory or prohibited, and that there is no such thing as moral understanding or moral knowledge. My aim was then to explore this position, which I first extended into a radical scepticism about all values ascribed to a group called the Destroyers of Illusion, to see where it would lead and whether it would run into difficulties.
In considering this nihilistic position, my Enquirer discovers that the Destroyers have gone too far in their claim that we live in a value-free universe in which nothing about goodness and worth can be known. The Enquirer realises that she is motivated to pursue what’s good for her and able to come to some firm conclusions regarding her own self-interest. She finds that she can also know, in some cases, what’s good for other people whose situations she comes to understand. The Enquirer then turns to consider the topic of manners—the ‘norms of civility.’ These are social conventions specifying how two or more people in certain situations ought to treat one another. The Enquirer perceives that she mostly knows about and is mostly motivated to observe these norms, but that, as items of knowledge, these conventions have to be learned. Further, acting in a mannerly fashion is sometimes inconvenient or contrary to self-interest. The reasons for ‘opting out’ of a local system of what’s considered good manners, on particular occasions or altogether, are explored. The Enquirer finally proceeds to consider morals—which, like manners, concern the interactions between two or more people and how they ought to treat one another. The similarities and differences between manners and morals are explored in terms of how they become items of knowledge, the motives for conforming to them, and the possible reasons for ‘opting out’ of morality either occasionally or completely.
In thus reasoning out metaethics from a first-person standpoint, the conclusions my Enquirer reaches are that moral claims are different to mere expressions of moral feelings and emotional reactions, though they are firmly tied to our individual and collective preferences; that there are good reasons both for remaining within the morality system and for sometimes rejecting norms accepted by the ambient culture. Further, my Enquirer discovers there is a tendency for moral knowledge to increase when no obstacles are put in its way, and that there is good sense in the notion that moral enquiry is aimed at the discovery of moral truths. There is plenty that is contentious in my construction, as there was in the model upon which it is loosely based, but I hope the line of reasoning can be defended, as well as challenged, by able students. My overall aim is that readers who have worked their way through the arguments will decisively set aside the more commonplace forms of scepticism and moral nihilism to which they would otherwise be inclined. Moral confidence, rather than moral certainty, is the epistemological aim.
In composing my text, I found that most of the major issues and concepts of metaethics, ranging from Plato’s worries about the relationship between power and truth, Hume’s account of the virtues, and Kant’s universalisation thought-experiments to contemporary theorising about plans and motives, practical reasons, moral realism, and the Darwinian perspective on human social life were raised at one point or another. Rather than seeing these treatments as belonging to competing theories, I suggest they individually capture different elements of a large and complex picture of moral learning, moral communication, and the progress of moral knowledge. Here, data sources, ideas, and positions are referenced in the endnotes and in the chapter-by-chapter suggestions for further reading. I hope this will make my book useful in a second respect. I would encourage readers to follow up the references that interest them and to study some of the old and new classics of moral theory and metaethics before, during, or after their encounter with the present text.
Though grammarians will wince at each occurrence, I have occasionally used ‘they,’ ‘their,’ and ‘them’ for the singular in order to maintain gender neutrality.
I am grateful to the undergraduate and postgraduate students of Rice University, Houston, Texas and the University of York (UK) who worked their way through earlier drafts of the manuscript. Special thanks are due as well to my referees with their many suggestions for improvement.