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    Metaethical Theories

    But in every case in which one would commonly be said to be making an ethical judgment, the function of the relevant ethical word is purely ‘emotive’. It is used to express feeling about certain objects, but not to make any assertion about them.1 


    In purely length terms, this is a longer chapter than any other in this textbook. In addition, it contains lots of key terminology that will be unique to this chapter. Thus, we don’t advise that this chapter should be read/considered/ crammed in merely one sitting.
        Rather, we suggest that you choose specific sections of the chapter, perhaps informed by your course specifications or our suggested tasks at the end of the chapter, and engage with those sections in any one sitting. In addition, the first “Issue to Consider” at the conclusion of this chapter should be especially useful in guiding your journey through Metaethics. The ideas herein are no more complex, fundamentally, than elsewhere in the book; the breadth should not be daunting if properly managed.

    1. Metaethics: Introduction

    The prefix “meta” is derived from the Greek for “beyond”. Metaethics is therefore a form of study that is beyond the topics considered in normative or applied ethics. Recall as we stated in the introduction, the differences between these forms of ethical study are helpfully captured in an analogy put forward by Fisher (2011) involving different participants in a game of football.

    • Applied Ethics is the study of how we should act in specific areas of our lives; how we should deal with issues like meat-eating, euthanasia or stealing (to use examples familiar to this textbook). To use the football analogy, the applied ethicist kicks the philosophical football around just as a footballer kicks the ball on the field. A good applied ethicist might score goals and be successful by offering specific arguments that convince us to change our moral views in a particular corner of our lives.
    • Normative Ethics is focussed on the creation of theories that provide general moral rules governing our behaviour, such as Utilitarianism or Kantian Ethics. The normative ethicist, rather than being a football player, is more like a referee who sets up the rules governing how the game is played. Peter Singer, for example, focuses on advancing applied ethical arguments within the normative framework of his Preference Utilitarianism (discussed in Chapter 1).
    • Metaethics is the study of how we engage in ethics. Thus, the metaethicist has a role more similar to a football commentator rather than to a referee or player. The metaethicist judges and comments on how the ethical game is being played rather than advancing practical arguments, or kicking the football, themselves. For example, the metaethicist might comment on the meaning and appropriateness of ethical language, just as the football commentator might remark on the appropriateness of particular tactics or set-piece routines. Nobody is perfect, and it is therefore possible that some of you are not avid football fans. To respect this possibility, here is a non-football based explanation of what Metaethics amounts to. Metaethical conclusions do not tell us how we should morally act or which type of decision is morally correct in any one particular circumstance. Instead, Metaethics is focussed on questions regarding how ethical study — at both normative and applied levels — works. Some typical metaethical questions are:
    • When we say something is “morally good”, what do we mean?
    • If the claim that “euthanasia is morally wrong” is true, what makes it true?
    • If moral claims are sometimes true, what methods do we use to access these moral truths?

    You should not expect a metaethical argument to provide specific guidance regarding how to act, but you should expect a metaethical argument to critique the foundations of normative or applied action-guiding moral theories.

    2. The Value of Metaethics

    A former colleague once suggested that Metaethics was entirely and frustratingly pointless — academia for academia’s sake, she thought. There are, however, good reasons for thinking that metaethical arguments can be just as worthy and valuable as their normative and applied counterparts.
        One such factor in favour of Metaethics is as follows. If ethics is fundamentally concerned with good behaviour or, as per Aristotle (his theory is detailed in Chapter 3), good characters, then it would seem to be desirable to properly understand what exactly “good” amounts to.
        Analogously, we would not consider attempting applied mathematics without first understanding what was meant by fundamental concepts like addition or subtraction. Nor would we consider attempting surgery on a person without being sure of the meanings of terms like blood, heart or liver. Understanding goodness — what it is and how we might access it — seems like a fundamental presupposition of successful ethical study, rather than a merely abstract topic of philosophical debate.

    3. Cognitivism versus Non-Cognitivism

    Key to the successful study of Metaethics is understanding the various key terminological distinctions that make up the “metaethical map”. Metaethical theories can be categorised, at least for our purposes, in respect of where they fall in the debates between Cognitivism and Non-Cognitivism, and Realism and Anti-Realism. Thus, it is a prerequisite for understanding and evaluating metaethical theories that you understand these two debates. In this section, we deal with the debate between cognitivists and non-cognitivists.
        If you are a Moral Cognitivist (the “moral” prefix is assumed from hereon) then you have a particular view about the meaning of moral terms and a particular view about the psychology behind moral utterances. The former version of Cognitivism, concerned with meaning, is captured in the discussion of Semantic Cognitivism while the latter version of Cognitivism, concerned with psychology, is captured in the discussion of Psychological Cognitivism. Cognitivism, as discussed in the remainder of this chapter, is a combination of these two positions.

    Semantic Cognitivism

    Semantic Cognitivism (not to be confused with Realism) suggests that when we make moral claims of the form “murder is wrong” or “helping others is right” our claims can be true or false (what philosophers call truth-apt). According to the semantic cognitivist, what makes our moral statements true or false is whether or not they accurately pick out, or refer to, specifically moral aspects of the world. Thus, the semantic cognitivist views our moral language as essentially descriptive in nature; we try to describe genuinely moral features of the world and our moral claims are true when our descriptions are accurate and false when they are inaccurate.
        This position really is as simple as it sounds, even though it is by no means uncontroversial. Consider a semantic cognitivist about the meaning of statements in a news report. When the reporter says that “the defendant stepped into the courthouse and gave his name and his date of birth”, then this statement will be truth-apt — it will be the kind of statement that can be described as true or false. Whether it is true or false will be determined by the accuracy of this statement as a description of features of the world; if the statement correctly refers to the features of the world identified then it will be true, if it does not then it will be false. The situation is the same for the semantic moral cognitivist, if the utterance “murder is wrong” really does pick out a moral property of wrongness associated with murder then it will be true, and false otherwise.
        Crucially, keep in mind that Semantic Cognitivism only goes as far as suggesting that moral claims are truth-apt — capable of being true or false. Semantic Cognitivism, by itself, does not suggest anything about moral claims ever actually being true. To put it in another way Cognitivism has nothing to do with what actually exists in the world (that is Realism versus Anti-Realism — see below). Instead, it is purely a theory explaining the meaning of moral statements.

    Psychological Cognitivism

    Psychological Cognitivism (not to be confused with Realism) is the view that when we utter a moral statement we give voice to a belief, rather than any other type of non-belief attitude. So, when I utter the statement “Leicester City won the Premier League in 2015–2016”, I express my belief that this happened. According to the psychological cognitivist, I also express a belief when I make claims such as “murder is wrong” or “helping others is right”.
        From here, Semantic and Psychological Cognitivism will be assumed to go together to form the cognitivist position. This is reasonable because it is most natural to think of a truth-apt utterance as being the expression of a belief, for we assume that a belief is the kind of thing that can be true or false and refers to the world. In ethics then, cognitivists claim that moral statements express truth-apt beliefs that are made true or false according to how accurately they describe the world. Moral language and moral psychology, according to the cognitivist, are not especially different to the language and psychology common to many other disciplines such as science, news journalism or nonfiction history books.
    You might be wondering what all the fuss is about so far; it is probably fair to say that Cognitivism is the common sense position when it comes to moral language and our associated psychology. Of course, you might think, ethical claims are truth-apt and that we express ethical beliefs, for what else could we be doing when we engage in normative or applied ethics? Richard Joyce (1966–) is of this view when it comes to Cognitivism and our moral utterances, suggesting that “…if something walks and talks like a bunch of [truth-apt, belief-state] assertions it’s highly likely that it is a bunch of [truth-apt, beliefstate] assertions”.2

    Semantic Non-Cognitivism

    Semantic Non-Cognitivism might, given the plausibility of its cognitivist rival, seem to be an undesirable position. According to the semantic non-cognitivist when we utter sentences such as “murder is wrong” we are not attempting to describe any moral features of the world but we are simply expressing an attitude or feeling — perhaps disgust, or anger, in this case. Attitudes are not the types of things that can be true or false because they are not truth-apt; they do not aim at truth and do not attempt to describe or refer to any feature of the world. Consider what happens when you get frustrated with your work, for example, and exclaim “Ahhhhh!” This is an expression of an attitude, it is not something which describes the world and it is not truth apt. The semantic noncognitivist thus argues that our moral utterances are more like “Ahhhhh!” than they are like “the defendant entered the courthouse”; they are non-descriptive, non-truth-apt expressions.

    Psychological Non-Cognitivism

    Psychological Non-Cognitivism is a view that is described by (though not defended by) Ralph Wedgwood (1964–). According to Wedgwood, psychological non-cognitivists hold that the psychology behind our non-truthapt moral expressions is not to be understood as based on “belief”, but rather based on “…desires, preferences, emotions, intentions or the like”.3
        Your cry of “Ahhhhh!” in frustration does not express a belief that your work is annoying — even though people might take you to be annoyed — but, most likely, a desire or preference for your work to be over. Such mental states are fairly common and unremarkable; it is just that they are different to belief states.
    When discussing Non-Cognitivism from this point, it should be understood as a position combining both the semantic and psychological elements. According to the non-cognitivist our moral utterances are not capable of being true or false and are expressions of attitudes/preferences/desires/emotions etc. rather than expressions of belief. Responding to a moral utterance by saying “true” or “false” would be to fail to properly comprehend the meaning of that moral statement just as it would be a mistake to respond to a cry of “Ahhhhh!” by saying “false”. The non-cognitivist thus suggests a fairly radical understanding of our common views regarding what moral utterances mean and how moral discourse works. Later, specific non-cognitivist views will be explained and evaluated and you can judge the desirability of this revision of our normal understanding for yourself.

    4. Realism versus Anti-Realism

    The second key fork in the road that separates metaethical theories is the choice between Moral Realism and Moral Anti-Realism (as with Cognitivism, the “Moral” prefix is assumed from hereon). As before, understanding these broad positions is crucial to understanding and critiquing the specific metaethical theories outlined later in this chapter.


    Realism is a view about what exists. It is the view that moral properties exists independently of human beings and can be located in the world. Just as an action can possess properties such as being “Salika’s action”, “a violent action”, or a “depressing action” so too it might possess the property of being a “morally wrong action”. Peter Railton (1950–) describes himself as in favour of a position that might be called “stark, raving Moral Realism” in virtue of believing that mind-independent moral truth exists in the world.4
        Realism in ethics is somewhat controversial, but Realism in geography is far less controversial and might be a helpful guide to the realist view in ethics. When a geographer speaks of the water in Lake Ontario, the “Geography realist” believes that such water exists and has various properties and qualities (temperature, depth etc.) that exist independently and objectively; the water would have a particular temperature irrespective of any human belief about that temperature. Analogously, in ethics, realists hold that certain moral properties or facts exist and that they exist objectively and independently of the minds or beliefs of individual people (or at least, realists relevant for our discussion, such as Railton, believe this). Importantly, realists thus believe in the possibility of error — believing that “murder is wrong” does not make murder wrong. What would make murder wrong would be the presence of an actual moral property of wrongness (objective and mind-independent) associated with the act of murder.


    Anti-Realism is simply the denial of Realism. Anti-realists deny the existence of any mind-independent, objective, moral properties. The moral anti-realist is thus akin to the anti-realist about dragons or leprechauns in that they simply deny their existence.
        Anti-realists tend to be (though need not be) non-cognitivists, a fact that should not be surprising given that non-cognitivists do not believe that our moral utterances aim of truth. However, the next section paints the metaethical map more specifically in respect of how Cognitivism, Non-Cognitivism, Realism and Anti-Realism might be combined to form specific metaethical theories.

    5. The Metaethical Map

    The broad explanations of Cognitivism, Non-Cognitivism, Realism and Anti- Realism have been crucial because they allow the following categorisation of specific metaethical views to make sense. You really need to learn what these terms mean if any of the following is going to make sense. Drawing out the metaethical map might be very helpful, to this end.

    Example theories which are both cognitivist and realist

    Moral Naturalism
    Moral Non-Naturalism (e.g. intuitionist realist accounts)

    Theories both cognitivist and anti-realist

    Moral Error Theory

    Theories both non-cognitivist and realist

    We only know of one person holding this view: Kahane.5

    Theories both non-cognitivist and anti-realist


    The natural bedfellows between the broad positions outlined are thus Cognitivism and Realism, and Non-Cognitivism and Anti-Realism. If we aim for truth in our moral utterances, it makes sense to think that there are
    properties existing that we are trying to refer to and accurately describe.
        However, if our moral utterances do not aim for truth then this may neatly sit with the view that no such moral properties exist (otherwise, why would we not try to describe them?).
        The outlying theory is Moral Error Theory, which combines the cognitivist view that our moral utterances are expressions of truth-apt beliefs with the view that there are no realist objective moral properties in the world. Thus, moral error theorists believe that our moral utterances are always, in every circumstance, false. This is a controversial view and is explored in more depth in sections ten and eleven.

    6. Cognitivist and Realist Theory One: Naturalism

    Naturalists hold that there are moral properties in the world that make true at least some of our ordinary moral beliefs. Unsurprisingly, naturalists also hold that these moral properties are perfectly natural properties rather than being non-natural. To understand this claim, we need a better grip of what the philosophical and ethical naturalist actually means by the term “natural”.
        Naturalists in ethics hold that moral properties are as natural as those properties discussed and examined in the sciences, for example. So, the property of being “wet” is a perfectly natural property as is the more complex property of “being magnetic”. These properties can be investigated by scientists and are not supernatural or beyond the study of natural sciences.
        Gilbert Harman (1938–) suggests that “…we must concentrate on finding the place of value and obligation [morality] in the world of facts as revealed by science”.6 If murder has the property of being morally wrong, then this property is natural if it fits into the world of facts as revealed by science.
        Simon Blackburn (1944–) (though not a realist himself) outlines the desirability and purpose of this commitment to Naturalism when he says that: “The problem is one of finding room for ethics, or placing ethics within the disenchanted, non-ethical order which we inhabit, and of which we are a part”.7
        Moral Naturalism thus speaks to those who wish to defend Realism and truth in ethics, without resorting to non-natural justifications based on Gods, Platonic Forms and the like. The naturalist seeks to fit moral properties into the non-mystical world of ordinary science.
        Utilitarianism is a normative ethical theory that is underpinned by a metaethical Naturalism. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, if you recall from Chapter 1, defined moral goodness in terms of the act (or set of rules) that
    promoted the greatest amount of pleasure/happiness for the greatest number
    of people. Utilitarians thus view good as an entirely natural properties for there
    is nothing mystical, enchanted or supernatural about pleasure; scientists can
    perfectly well understand pleasure in terms of neural firings or psychological
        In addition, both Philippa Foot and Rosalind Hursthouse have sought to
    place Virtue Ethics (as discussed in its Aristotelian form in Chapter 3) within a
    naturalist metaethical framework.
        According to Hursthouse, human beings function well if they meet four
    particular ends — survival, reproduction, enjoyment/freedom from pain, and
    possession of an appropriate functional role within a group. As rational beings,
    we can determine the character traits and dispositions that can help us to meet
    these aims and such character traits and dispositions will then be virtuous.
    Virtue Ethics, thus defined, would therefore be a normative theory based
    on Naturalism because what makes something good or virtuous is entirely
    determined by natural factors to do with our psychology, behaviour, biology
    and social dynamics. As with Utilitarianism, no mystical or supernatural stuff
    is required to explain the virtues and associated moral goodness.
        Does Naturalism lead to Relativism? Harman claimed that, if correct,
    Naturalism would naturally lead us to Moral Relativism and away from
    Moral Absolutism (these theories are more specifically discussed in Chapter
    1). Harman suggests that if ethical guidelines and rules were absolute in
    nature then they would need to apply irrespective of contingent situations or
    contingent lifestyles; murder, for example, would be wrong irrespective of any
    specific situational factors if the claim that “murder is wrong” were absolutely
    true. However, if moral properties are natural properties, then Relativism
    may make more sense in virtue of the fact that natural properties can vary in
    presence from case to case.
        For example, it is not absolutely true that “London is north of Paris” because
    at some point continental plates will shift and these cities could move in
    relative location to each other. Nor is it absolutely true that “sections of the
    Australian coast have coral reefs”, since human activity and climate change
    might change this natural fact. Equally then, if a natural property is what
    makes true the claim that “murder is wrong” then this natural property might
    seem to depend upon the amount of pleasure produced, or else on some
    other changeable natural factor. If moral properties are natural properties, then
    actions might not be absolutely wrong but might instead be wrong relative to
    the changeable presence of those natural properties.
        Michael Smith (1954–) rejects Harman’s claim and suggests that Naturalism
    is, in and of itself, irrelevant to the debate between moral relativists and moral absolutists. Smith argues that absolutists and relativists will differ on
    questions regarding the rationality or reasonableness of human behaviour and
    that these questions cannot be settled by taking a stance on Naturalism or
    Non-Naturalism in ethics.
        For Smith, important questions relevant to the absolutist and relativist
    debate are a priori rather than a posteriori — meaning that these debates must
    be analysed and investigated by methods that do not involve testing the world.
    Thus, testing the world in order to determine the natural or non-natural status
    of moral properties cannot settle the a priori differences between relativists and

    7. Objections to Naturalism

    G. E. Moore was a supporter of Cognitivism and Realism. However, Moore
    was not a naturalist — he was a non-naturalist — and objected to the idea
    that moral properties were natural properties. Moore’s objection to identifying
    moral properties as natural properties was two-fold. Firstly, he thought that
    moral properties were fundamentally simple and secondly he thought the
    identification of the moral with the natural failed what he termed the Open
    Question Argument
        Moore’s first objection to Naturalism, from simplicity, is based on an analogy
    between moral properties and colour properties. According to Moore, the
    concept of the colour yellow is a fundamentally simple concept in so far as it
    cannot be explained in terms of any other concept or property. Consider, as an
    example of a complex property, the idea of a horse. A horse can be explained
    to someone who has never come into contact with the animal because the
    concept of a horse can be reduced to simpler part. As a mammal of a typically
    brown colour, with certain organs and certain dimensions. In an obvious way,
    the concept of a horse can be broken down to simpler components.
        Moore denies that the same is true for the concept of yellow. Yellow cannot
    be explained to someone who has not come into visual contact with it, because
    yellow is a simple concept that cannot be broken down into simpler component
    parts. Yellow is just yellow, and we can say nothing else about it that will
    explain it in simpler terms. The same, says Moore, is true for moral properties.
    According to Moore:

    If I am asked, ‘What is good?’ my answer is that good is good, and that is the end of the
    . Or if I am asked ‘How is good to be defined?’ my answer is that it cannot be defined, and
    that is all I have to say about it.

    On this basis, Moore cannot accept that moral properties can be reduced
    to natural properties as this would imply that moral properties are not
    fundamentally simple. The utilitarian, for example, defines goodness in terms
    of pleasure and so reduces goodness to pleasure. Moore suggests that moral
    naturalists make a mistake in trying to ground simple moral properties in
    terms of other natural properties.
        As it stands, Moore’s analogy between goodness and yellow has some
    argumentative pull but lacks sufficient robustness. However, Moore’s Open
    Question Argument more formally drives home his point.
        Moore suggests that we take some putative moral claim such as “giving to
    charity is good”. For goodness, Moore suggests we follow the naturalist’s lead
    and insert some natural property such as “pleasure”. Now, we have the claim
    that “giving to charity is pleasurable”. This identification between goodness
    and pleasure is the type of identification a naturalist about goodness might
    have in mind.
        However, according to Moore it remains an open question as to whether
    or not something creating pleasure is actually good. The question remains
    meaningful in a way that it should not remain meaningful if goodness is
    actually reducible to pleasure. After all, it is not possible to meaningfully ask
    whether or not a bachelor is an unmarried man as the concept of a bachelor
    can be reduced to the concept of an unmarried man. Thus, if this utilitarianstyle
    naturalist is correct about the identification of goodness and pleasure, it
    should not be a meaningful question — an open question — to ask whether
    a pleasurable act is a morally good act. Yet, it seems to remain open as to
    whether Action A is good, even if I am told that Action A is pleasurable.
        Moore suggests that any attempted reduction of a moral property to a
    natural property will leave a meaningful open question of the form “this act
    possesses the natural property suggested” but “is it a good act”? Julia Tanner
    provides a modern example of the Open Question Argument in action:

    Some people talk as if they think that that which has evolved is the same thing as being good. Thus,
    for instance, capitalism may be justified on the basis that it is merely an expression of ‘the survival
    of the fittest’ and ‘the survival of the [fittest]’ is good. To make such an argument is, according to
    Moore, to commit the naturalistic fallacy because good has been defined as something other than
    itself, as ‘the survival of the fittest’

    Tanner refers to the Naturalistic Fallacy, which is Moore’s own terminology for
    the mistake of attempting to reduce the moral property to the natural property.
    All such attempted reductions will fail because it will always be possible to
    meaningful ask whether the suggested natural property is actually good; if
    this question is open then goodness does not equal the suggested natural property. Think of the Open Question Argument as the searchlight seeking
    out those who commit the naturalistic fallacy.
        It is worth noting that Moore’s arguments, although directed against
    naturalistic reductions of goodness, are just as powerful against non-natural
    reductions of goodness. Any attempt to reduce the concept of goodness to,
    for example, “what God wills’” will also fail because the question of “this is
    what God wills, but is it good?” appears to remain open. Self-evidently, this
    non-natural reduction is not an example of a naturalistic fallacy, but it can be
    no more acceptable if, like Moore, you believe that good is a fundamentally
    simple concept.

    8. Cognitivist and Realist Theory Two: Non-Naturalism

    Moore’s critique of Naturalism sets the scene for his own metaethical view.
    According to Moore, moral properties do exist but they are fundamentally
    simple non-natural properties. The best way to understand what non-natural
    means is as follows. If Goodness is non-natural then it is not the kind of
    property that is discoverable through the kind of empirical means that help
    us to identify natural properties, such as in the sciences. How we might
    come to know non-natural properties depend on the particular theory under
    consideration. However, typically non-naturalists think that we intuit the
    presence of these simple non-natural properties via a moral sense. So although
    intuitions are about how we discover moral properties rather than what moral
    properties are like, typically non-naturalists are also intuitionists.
        Richard Price (1723–1791) suggested that truths are intuited when they
    are acquired “without making any use of any process of reasoning”.10 More
    contemporarily, W. D. Ross (1877–1971) suggested that we intuit self-evident
    moral truths “without any need of proof, or of evidence beyond itself”.11 An
    example should make this method of intuiting non-natural moral properties
    much clearer.
        Becky is watching a BBC news report on a woman who has been helped
    to hear for the first time in her life via the use of new medical technology.
    Having been so helped, the news report points out that this person has made a
    documentary which involves her passing on this technology to poor children
    who are living with deafness in Bangladesh. While watching the report and
    the associated interview, Becky intuits the fact that the doctors have acted in a
    morally good way in researching and implementing the cure for this woman’s
    deafness and that she too is acting morally well in helping others to hear. The moral goodness is self-evident in the situation and does not require Becky to
    use her faculties of reason to identify it; the property of goodness is picked up
    via her moral sense.
        W. D. Ross specifically suggests that there are various self-evident prima
    duties that we can intuit (prima facie meaning, in this sense, apparent on
    first glance); duties that should guide our behaviour but that sometimes can
    be overridden by other competing duties. Ross outlines duties such as not
    harming others, not lying, and keeping promises. Ross suggests that no formal
    empirical or logical defence of these duties is appropriate because they are
    self-evident. We cannot argue to the claim we should not lie, only from it in
    terms of how to act in specific situations.
        If you are an intuitionist and a realist this might offer a route to surviving
    both the Open Question Argument and the Naturalistic Fallacy. Intuitionists
    claim that moral properties are fundamentally simple and non-natural, open
    to apprehension via our moral sense. When we utter moral sentences we
    seek to describe the presence of such properties accurately and, sometimes,
    we will correctly and appropriately refer to the presence of these non-natural
    properties in the world. When we so appropriately refer, we make true moral

    9. Objections to Intuitionism

    Intuitionism offers a way around the Open Question Argument and the
    Naturalistic Fallacy, consequently it has a number of modern proponents
    (e.g. Ralph Wedgewood). However, objections to a basic Intuitionism are not
    particularly difficult to conceive of.
        Firstly, Intuitionism might be thought to struggle when explaining moral
    disagreement. If moral truths are self-evident and can be intuited, then why
    do even self-professed intuitionists such as Moore and Ross have radically
    different ethical views (Moore is a teleologist, whereas Ross intuits proto-
    Kantian moral truths).
        In response, Ross has suggested that we need a certain moral maturity to
    our intuitive sense, just as our other faculties require maturity and tuning to
    properly pick up on features of the world. Indeed, Samuel Clarke (1675–1729)
    suggested that, amongst other things, stupidity may lead to our intuitions
    going astray and this may explain continuing moral disagreement. If only we
    were less daft, our intuitive moral sense might be more reliable!
        In addition, on a related note, we may wonder how such intuitive
    moral judgments might be properly verified. If you support the Verification
    — which you may be lucky enough to come across in a unit on
    Religious Language — then you believe that statements that cannot be empirically verified (tested against the world to determine their truth or
    falsity) or are true by definition are meaningless.
        If moral judgments are intuitively supported judgments about non-natural
    properties, then it is not clear how we could verify whether it is Moore or Ross,
    to use two examples, who intuits goodness correctly. Certainly, we could
    not use empirical means to test for the presence of non-natural properties
    in the world. Thus, verificationists may suggest that moral statements — if
    Intuitionism is correct — would be meaningless in virtue of our inability to
    verify such statements.
        Finally, returning to the theme of disagreement, we might posit evidence
    that our intuitions are so unreliable that they are better understood as irrational
    moral judgments expressing our own feelings or personal beliefs, rather than
    judgments giving voice to the existence of mind-independent, objective, nonnatural
    moral properties.
        Consider responses to the standard ethical dilemma of a trolley case. In
    one version, you can redirect a train to save five people tied to the track, but
    doing so will kill one person tied in the path of the redirected train. In a second
    case, you can save five people tied to the track by pushing one rather portly
    gentleman to his death in front of the train to stop its progress. Most responders
    favour saving five over one in the first case, but favour saving one over five
    in the second case. If our intuitions point so divergently when we make moral
    judgments, might we be better to assume our pre-rational intuitive responses
    are expressions of feelings or initial beliefs, rather than a reflection of objective
        Perhaps responses based on moral maturity or stupidity will apply here also,
    but this may be harder to hold when explaining one person’s own personal
    divergent intuitions about such cases rather than disagreement across a group
    of different people.
        J. L. Mackie (1917–1981) also offers criticisms of Intuitionism, but these are
    explored in the next section as they feed into explanation of Mackie’s own
    Moral Error Theory. It is, as ever, for you to judge whether the intuitionist has
    any plausible defence of their theory against the criticisms suggested thus far.

    10. Cognitivist and Anti-Realist Theory One: Moral Error Theory

    Thus far, we have seen that Cognitivism tends to be associated with Realism.
    Mackie breaks with this trend with his Moral Error Theory. Mackie accepts that
    our moral utterances are expressions of truth-apt beliefs, but denies Realism.
    In so doing, Mackie denies that possibility that our truth-apt beliefs are ever true, because a moral description of the world can never accurately describe a
    world without any moral properties in it.
        In Mackie’s own words, “Although most people in making moral judgments
    implicitly claim, among other things, to be pointing to something objectively
    prescriptive, these claims are all false”.12 By prescriptive, Mackie means
    action-guiding and Mackie denies that any objective guides to action (moral
    properties, in our terms) actually exist.
        Mackie’s view is startling and raises loads of questions about how we should
    live if morality is entirely false. Although interesting, these discussions are not
    for this chapter. Instead, we must explain and evaluate Mackie’s theory as it
    stands rather than consider its implications if true. A theory having depressing
    or liberating implications does not make that theory any more or less likely to
    be accurate (though it is surprising how often even the best philosophers are
    prone to such mistaken thinking).
        Mackie’s Anti-Realism is supported by the following two arguments. It
    should be made clear that Mackie’s arguments are directed against both
    Naturalistic and Non-Naturalistic Realism

    Argument from Relativity

    Mackie’s first objection to Realism is built out of his appreciation of the depth
    of moral disagreement, and so shares something with one of the objections
    to Intuitionism offered in the previous section. Mackie suggests that in other
    plausible realist disciplines, such as the sciences or history views begin
    to coalesce around the truth over time and disagreement is, at least in part,
        Disagreement occurs in these disciplines because there is a barrier to true
    knowledge and scientists and historians will sometimes, through no fault of
    their own, be blind to the facts. However, sometimes the facts become clear
    and disagreement thereby reduces.
        Yet, in ethics, philosophers still disagree over the same issues that they were
    arguing over 2000+ years ago, questions such as “when is war acceptable” and
    “when can promises be broken”. If moral truths really did exist and Realism
    was correct, should we not have expected to find some of these truths by now?
    Thus, Mackie views disagreement in ethics — deep disagreement that seems
    impervious to solution through rational means — as evidence that Realism
    is incorrect; there are no moral facts to settle the debates or at least some of
    those debates would have been settled by now! Of course, if you think that
    some moral debates have been settled, then you could use this to criticise this
    Mackian argument.

    Argument Queerness

    Mackie’s second anti-realist argument is his most famous. Moral properties — be
    they natural or non-natural — are supposed to be action-guiding. If it is true that
    murder is wrong, then we should not murder, even if we might want to. Equally,
    if it is true that giving to charity is right, then we should give to charity, even if
    we might not want to
    At its core, morality is supposed to offer reasons for action
    that we cannot simply ignore even if we like murdering or hate charitable
    giving. This aspect of morality, however, raises issues at the metaethical level.
        David Hume (1711–1776) recognised the potential problem with the actionguiding
    quality of morality when he spoke of the “is-ought” gap. According
    to Hume:

    In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met, I have always [remarked], that the author
    proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or
    makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am [surprised] to find, that
    instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is
    not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible, but is however, of
    the last consequence

    Hume wonders why and how we move from statements about what is the case,
    to statements about how we ought to act. We do not make such a link between
    “is” and “ought” in areas other than morality — the fact that a horse is running
    at Goodwood does not, of itself, give you an “ought” regarding how to act in
    response. The fact that a moral property is, on the other hand, does seem to
    give rise to such an “ought” regarding behaviour. How can this be explained?
        Hume has his own suggestion for explanation, and this is outlined in section
    twelve. Mackie, however, takes this Humean worry in his own direction.
    Mackie suggests that properties themselves that carry such an action-guiding
    quality, that offer an “ought” just because they are, would be extremely queer
    properties. He says that “[if] there were objective values [moral properties],
    then they would be entities or qualities or relations of a very strange sort,
    utterly different from anything else in the universe”.14
        Mackie suggests that if we can explain moral thinking without resorting
    to positing the existence of such queer and utterly unique entities then we
    would be better off. The simpler explanation is not to grant existence to weird
    properties, but just to suggest that there are no properties and that our moral
    beliefs reflect cultural and personal beliefs. Just as we do not tend to suggest
    that aliens or ghosts exist on the basis of first-hand testimony (competing
    explanations based on drunkenness or tiredness, for example, seem more plausible) so we perhaps ought not to grant that moral properties exist just
    because we happen to talk about them.
        Indeed, support for Anti-Realism through a complaint about the queerness
    of moral properties is further supported via consideration of Hume’s fork.
        Hume divided knowledge into two camps — knowledge gained from
    relations of ideas and knowledge gained from matters of fact. Knowledge claims
    like “2+2=4”, or various geometric claims like “triangles have three sides”,
    are established in the former way whereas knowledge claims like “Alastair is
    wearing a blue shirt today” are established in the latter way.
        This split of types of knowledge is referred to as Hume’s fork, yet claims to
    moral knowledge do not seem to fit either side of the fork. Moral knowledge
    is not derivable simply from relations of ideas (it is not supposed to be like
    geometric or mathematical truth and cannot be deduced a priori without any
    testing the world through our senses).
        Nor, however, is it derivable simply from matters of fact, given the “is-ought”
    gap referred to above (a posteriori, sense-based, worldly and scientific empirical
    observations reveal what is, not what ought to be). If moral knowledge does
    not fit into either side of Hume’s fork, then it will be the case that either moral
    knowledge is a completely unique type of knowledge accessed in a completely
    unique way or, more plausibly perhaps, moral knowledge does not actually
    exist. But if we cannot know that moral properties exist then we should not be
        Hume, certainly, would have rejected the idea that moral properties
    existed based on the application of his famous fork. Remember, however, that
    Hume favoured Non-Cognitivism and Anti-Realism rather than (like Mackie)
    Cognitivism and Anti-Realism.
        On a similar theme, Mackie strengthens the argument from queerness by
    referring to the queer method of understanding that we would need in order
    to come into contact with queer moral properties. Mackie suggests that we
    would need a special moral faculty in order to access queer moral properties.
    Although Mackie admires the honesty of the intuitionist in admitting the
    existence of such a queer moral sense, he does not think that it is credible to
    believe in the existence of such a radically different faculty for accessing realist
    moral properties in the world.
        As before, if we can explain our moral beliefs without needing to admit
    the existence of queer properties, then why admit to the existence of a
    queer method for grasping queer properties? Moral Realism, according to
    Mackie, thus requires an unnecessarily queer metaphysics (what exists) and
    an unnecessarily queer epistemology (how we know what exists). For these
    reasons, Mackie is an anti-realist.

    11. Objections to Moral Error Theory

    Realists have various responses to Mackie. Firstly, realists might just agree
    and accept the conclusion that moral properties would be queer in virtue of
    bridging the “is-ought” gap; they may simply deny that such queerness is a
    problem. Indeed, intuitionists may be very happy to accept the uniqueness
    of moral properties in virtue of their fundamental simplicity and their
    irreducibility to other properties. Naturalists, meanwhile, may simply wonder
    why something being different to other things should be seen as a problem; is
    it not the case that everything is different to everything else, in at least some
    sense? In addition, Mackie’s views regarding the importance and depth of
    moral disagreement can be criticised.
        A. J. Ayer (1910–1989), for example, felt that moral disagreements existed
    only where there were disagreements over the non-moral facts. On this view,
    Max and Ethan disagree over the morality of meat-eating only because they
    disagree over the non-moral fact of how much pain is endured by animals sent
    for slaughter. If all the non-moral facts were clear, then their disagreement
    would no longer persist. Thus, Ayer would have felt that moral disagreement
    is not as deep and pervasive as Mackie suggests.
        A different response to moral disagreement is to defend the idea of moral
    progress. It may be tempting to argue that moral disagreement has actually
    reduced over time because we have come into contact with truths regarding
    the badness of slavery, sexism and racism etc. Moral Error Theory denies the
    possibility of moral progress in virtue of denying any moral truth; progress
    requires correct answers. If you believe that progress has been made in ethics,
    perhaps in the form of human rights being identified, then you have a reason
    to disagree with Moral Error Theory.
        Moral Error Theory is also highly counterintuitive. It says that all of your
    moral beliefs are false and that they could never be true because no moral truth
    making properties exist in the world. It suggests that murder is not morally
    wrong (but it is not morally right either!) and that giving to charity is not
    morally right (but it is not morally wrong either!). Given there is no truth to be
    found in ethics, it might be thought that we should abandon our faulty moral
    language entirely — a rather extreme metaethical conclusion!
        However, if you do accept Cognitivism as an accurate explanation of moral
    language and psychology, but find it hard to grant that objective, mindindependent
    moral facts or properties actually exist in the world, then Moral
    may be worth these seeming costs.

    12. Non-Cognitivism

    Prior to an explanation and evaluation of the specific theoretical options for
    the non-cognitivist, it is worthwhile just providing a few words in favour of
    Non-Cognitivism more generally.
        If you are impressed by anti-realist arguments but do not wish to end
    up an error theorist, then it may be worth denying Cognitivism rather than
    following Mackie. Indeed, this is what the majority of anti-realists tend to do.
    Thus, non-cognitivists will be unconcerned by the lack of moral properties in
    the world because they deny that our moral utterances are attempts to pick
    such properties out.
        As well as supporting Anti-Realism, Hume’s identification of the “is-ought”
    gap might be taken as helpful evidence for Non-Cognitivism. If moral
    utterances carry with them an action-guiding force, this may be because moral
    utterances are not descriptive beliefs but are instead expressions of attitudes,
    feelings or emotions. This picture is certainly what Hume had in mind given
    his Humean Theory of Motivation. Hume claimed that beliefs alone cannot
    motivate behaviour because beliefs are motivationally inert. The function of a
    belief as a psychological state is to offer a motivationally neutral description
    of the world; beliefs say what we believe “is” and do not by themselves lead to
    us to action. To be motivated to actually act, according to Hume, a belief must
    be coupled with a desire in our heads. The following case should make Hume’s
    claim clearer.
        Liz believes that her friends will soon be arriving for a barbecue. However,
    Liz lacks any desire to cater for her friends and so does not act. Liz’s belief,
    by itself, does not and cannot motivate action on her part. Now, if we change
    the situation and add to Liz’s psychology a desire to feed and cater for her
    friends, then Liz would come to be motivated to act and prepare a delightfully
    sumptuous feast. Thus, Hume argues, desires are required in the explanation
    of our actions.
        So why is this relevant to a defence of Non-Cognitivism? Well, when a
    person utters a moral phrase, if the phrase is sincerely uttered, then they’ll be
    motivated. For example, if I utter the words “giving to charity, for those who
    can afford to do so, is morally required”, then you would expect me to be
    motivated to give charity if I were able to do so; if I chose not to give to charity
    in that circumstance you might question the sincerity of my moral utterance.
        Moral utterances, and relevant moral motivations, seem to be remarkably
    well tied to each other. Now, if moral utterances were expressions of moral
    beliefs we would need to, in addition to the moral belief, grant the existence of a continuous desire to do what we believe is moral. However, if moral
    utterances were themselves moral desires then we need not add the extra belief
    into our psychology. If the phrase “giving to charity is morally right” is simply
    an expression of my desire that everyone should give to charity, then it is
    exceedingly simple to explain why our moral utterances and our motivations
    tend to track each other so well — our moral utterances are just expressions
    of our moral desires! But the claim that our moral judgements are simply an
    expression of our desires just is Non-Cognitivism.

    13. Non-Cognitivist and Anti-Realist Theory One: Emotivism

    A. J. Ayer and C. L. Stevenson (1908–1979) were defenders of Emotivism, a
    metaethical view that held considerable sway for a time in the early parts of the
    twentieth century. According to Emotivism, the moral statement that murder
    is wrong is simply an expression of emotion against the act of murdering. It
    gives formal linguistic voice to what is essentially a negative “boo” to murder.
    Indeed, Emotivism is referred to as the “boo/hurrah” metaethical theory;
    when we claim that something is morally wrong we boo that action and when
    we claim that something is morally right we hurrah that action. This explains
    the connection between morality and motivation; we express motivationallyrelevant
    emotional distaste or emotional approval when we use moral words
    rather than expressing motivationally inert moral beliefs.
        Although a verificationist about language himself, Ayer did not wish to deny
    that moral utterances had a meaning even though, as a non-cognitivist and
    anti-realist, he plainly could not suggest that moral utterances were empirically
    verifiable or open to real-world testing in order to determine their truth value
    (moral utterances, on this view, are not truth-apt beliefs attempting to describe
    the world). Thus, Ayer suggested that moral utterances had an emotive meaning.
    Ayer, speaking of the claim that “stealing money is wrong” says this is simply
    an act of “…evincing my moral disapproval of it. It is as if I had said, ‘You
    stole that money’ in a peculiar tone of horror, or written it with the addition
    of some special exclamation marks”.15 Thus, the moral judgment meaningfully
    reveals an emotion, even if not a description of the world. Emotivism does not,
    therefore, straightforwardly lead to nihilism as some meaning for moral values
    and moral judgments is preserved. On this basis, there is no pull to the idea
    that we should stop using moral language.
        Stevenson, in addition, suggested of moral terms like “right”, “wrong”,
    “good” and “bad” that they have only emotive meanings in the sense of
    approval and disapproval. Therefore, just as we cannot say that a “boo” is
    false, for it is not truth-apt so too we cannot say that a linguistic boo of the form “stealing is wrong” is either true or false. Stevenson thus argued that
    Emotivism captured the “magnetism” of morality — our moral utterances
    track our motivations because our moral utterances are expressions of the
    emotions that underpin our motivations.

    14. Objections to Emotivism

    Despite early popularity, Emotivism is not a popular position today and it is
    widely considered to be an unduly and unhelpfully simplistic form of Non-
    Cognitivism. We consider three objections here.
        Firstly, on a psychological level, Emotivism is unlikely to feel correct. When
    I suggest that a certain action is right or wrong, I take myself to be making a
    claim that is true and making a claim that reflects how I take the world to be
    (reflecting a moral belief in my head). I do not consider myself to be booing
    an action in a rather academic and indirect way. We might question whether
    abstract philosophising about the meaning of words should ever trump our
    own psychological reflections when it comes to what we mean when we utter
    moral sentences. Can it be the case that Ayer or Stevenson knew better than I
    what I meant when I said that “terrorism is morally wrong”? Can they know
    better than you, if you take yourself to be making truth-apt and descriptive
    moral judgments?
        Secondly, some of our moral utterances do not seem to be in the least part
    emotional. For example, Charlotte may feel that “it is wrong to avoid paying
    tax” but be quite depressed about this judgment. If we were cognitivists, this
    emotional divorce could be easily explained; Charlotte believes there to be
    a moral fact that is independent of her mind and her desires and this fact
    depresses her. However, it is not immediately obvious how Emotivism might
    explain Charlotte’s “boo to avoiding tax” when she harbours a desire to avoid
    tax herself. Perhaps we can have second-order emotions about our emotions
    (Charlotte is sad that she feels negatively towards tax avoiding), or perhaps
    Charlotte feels that others should not avoid tax — boo them — while she is
    happy act in this way — hurrah for her own tax avoidance. However, both of
    these responses require careful statement and defence if you seek to pursue
        Finally, we can return to moral disagreement. Consider a sincere moral
    disagreement between William and Wendy over the issue of euthanasia. Wendy
    says that euthanasia is morally right in at least some cases, whilst William says
    that euthanasia is morally wrong in all circumstances. William and Wendy
    may seem to be disagreeing via utilising logic and reason just as scientists,
    or economists, or computer technicians, disagree over a substantively correct
    answer that is independent of their own minds.
    However, once the facts of matter are agreed upon the emotivist must
    reduce this disagreement to a series of emotional boo’s and hurrah’s regarding
    euthanasia, where truth is never the aim of the moral utterances. Suggesting
    that moral debates are always emotive rather than factual, and so are swayed
    only by emotional rather than rational means, is a controversial claim given that
    moral reasons seem to be deployed very carefully in just such debates. Indeed,
    the emotivist explanation of moral debate seems to suggest moral arguments
    have more in common with arguments over which ice-cream flavour is best
    (boo for chocolate, hurrah for vanilla) than with truth-based disagreements in
    other academic disciplines. If this is not how we believe moral debates should
    be described, then Emotivism has a problem. As Richard Brandt suggests
    “Ethical statements do not look like the kind of thing the emotive theory says
    they are”.16 Brandt, as per the above discussion, feels that moral utterances
    are things we take to be truth-apt, contra the emotivist interpretation of those
    moral utterances.
        The previous objection to Emotivism may seem to highlight possible links
    between Emotivism and moral relativism. But do not be deceived. Recall from
    Chapter 1 that relativists, as opposed to absolutists, hold that no moral claim
    is ever absolutely true in all circumstances. As a specific type of relativist, the
    cultural relativist may suggest that the claim “murder is wrong” can be true in
    some cultural settings and false in others depending on the different cultural
    standards for behaviour. Thus, there may be some suggestion that Cultural
    Relativism and Emotivism have the same set of grounding beliefs — no
    absolute moral truths exist and moral expressions reflect the culturally backed
    emotions of particular speakers, rather than anything more absolutely and
    mind-independently true.
        However, this is a mistake. Contra Emotivism, cultural relativists do tend
    to believe in a form of realist moral truth, even if such relativists do not hold
    that absolute moral truths exist. Whilst the cultural relativist may admit that
    ethical judgments often reflect personal and culturally supported emotions,
    they define goodness as a genuine property that is determined or fixed in
    nature by the cultural standards of a given society.
        Thus, if “murder is wrong” is a true relative to my culture, then it is still true.
    I am, therefore, mistaken if I claim that “murder is acceptable”, at least within
    the boundaries of my society even if not in the societies of others. This truth is
    non-absolute and relative to culture, but the cultural relativist accepts that it
    exists and that our moral statements attempt to describe such truths. On the
    other hand, the emotivist, obviously, does not accept that our moral statements
    are such attempted descriptions of realist, albeit relativistic, moral truths.

    15. Non-Cognitivist and Anti-Realist Theory Two: Prescriptivism

    R. M. Hare was a committed non-cognitivist and anti-realist but he was not
    a defender of a simple emotivist position. Instead, Hare was a metaethical
        As a prescriptivist, Hare felt that our moral utterances express more than
    just emotional approval and disapproval. Instead, our moral utterances
    express a subjective prescription for others to act in accordance with our
    moral judgments. So, for example, if William claimed that “euthanasia is
    morally wrong” then this utterance means that William wants others to cease
    supporting or deciding in favour of euthanasia. Prescriptivism thus attempts
    to capture the action-guiding nature of moral utterances without resorting to
    claims of moral truth.
        Prescriptivism also seems to better account for moral disagreement than
    does Emotivism, because Prescriptivism suggests that the action-guiding
    normative edge of moral utterances is fundamentally built into the meaning of
    a moral statement. In addition, perhaps crucially, Prescriptivism also allows us
    to legitimately criticise another person for their moral views without needing
    to invoke claims of realist moral truth or realist moral falsehood. Consider the
    following example.
        Cristina claims that “murder is universally and absolutely morally wrong”.
    According to the prescriptivist, this is not a descriptive belief but is a reflection
    of Cristina’s non-cognitive attitude that no one should ever murder. However,
    if Cristina later utters the words “murdering this terrible dictator is morally
    acceptable”, then we can criticise Cristina’s inconsistency. On the one hand,
    she wants no one to ever murder whilst on the other hand also wanting the
    murder of a terrible dictator. It is not that Cristina had made a false moral
    claim that justifies criticism of her, according to the prescriptivist, but it is her
    inconsistency in the actions she prescribes for others that justifies criticism. Thus,
    we cannot cry “false!” against Cristina, but we can cry “inconsistent”. This, at
    least, may give some genuine meaning back to moral disagreement and provide
    a method for legitimately and rationally criticising the moral claims of others.
    Prescriptivism is, on this basis, often viewed as a step-up on Emotivism when
    it comes to non-cognitivist and anti-realist metaethical theories.

    16. Objections to Prescriptivism

    Many of the challenges to Prescriptivism carry over from the challenges
    suggested regarding Emotivism. The prescriptivist must also explain why
    they know better the meaning of our moral statements than we do, at least if we take ourselves to be making truth-apt and descriptive claims about moral
    properties in the world.
        In addition, we might accept that Prescriptivism captures the qualities
    of moral disagreement better than Emotivism, but deny that the picture of
    moral disagreement offered by the prescriptivist is good enough. After all,
    is inconsistency the most serious objection we can make to someone with
    whom we disagree morally? Prescriptivism does not allow us to suggest
    that a racist who believes “it is morally acceptable to kill those of a different
    racial background” utters something false. Indeed, so long as the racist holds
    morally consistent views then we have no grounds to criticise his position at
    all. If we feel that retaining the ability to cry “false!” — with proper, rational
    and realist justification — is important when confronting the moral views of
    racists, sexists and other morally deplorable individuals, then Prescriptivism
    does not offer the tools that we need. Of course, the prescriptivist may reply
    that we cannot claim that Realism is correct just because we wish it to be so
    and that Prescriptivism, like it or not, is actually the proper understanding of
    the meaning of our moral judgments. Again, this is a judgment you should
    make for yourself.


    There is much more that could be said in this chapter. Metaethical theories are as varied and nuanced as their normative rivals, and it is impossible to give a fair hearing to all of them in a single chapter. Catherine Wilson has authored an enquiry into Metaethics that reflects the challenge of coming to your own, first-person, view on these issues.17 However, we have tried as far as possible on this whistle-stop tour to outline these theories clearly and to give them such a fair hearing. It is for you to decide where you sit in the debate between Cognitivism and NonCognitivism, Realism and Anti-Realism, and, more generally, to decide how much importance Metaethics has relative to the normative and applied camps of ethical study.


    • Not breaking down the chapter so as to be firmly in grasp of the meanings of key terms, and then the nature of the theories, before trying to engage in evaluation.
    • Confusing Cognitivism, Non-Cognitivism, Realism and Anti-Realism.
    • Misunderstanding the queerness complaint.
    • Forgetting the importance of asking a meaningful question when explaining the mechanism of the Open Question Argument.
    • Not using analogies appropriately — think of other realist/naturalist/ cognitivist/non-cognitivist disciplines and examples, then compare these to ethics.
    • Ignoring the explanations of disagreement offered by intuitionists.
    • Not linking criticisms of one position to support for another position; e.g. Moore’s attack on Naturalism explains his intuitionist views and Mackie’s attack on Realism justifies his anti-realist position.
    • Not using examples to aid explanation because not directly dealing with obviously normative or applied issues.


    1. Can you create your own Metaethical Map? Try drawing out a flowchart style diagram that separates Cognitivism and Non-Cognitivism, followed by the associated theories. If feeling confident, then try to add weaknesses and strengths to your map. We recommend this as an excellent study aide!18
    2. Does Emotivism lend support to Relativism?
    3. Does Naturalism lend support to Absolutism?
    4. Does something being queer (in Mackie’s sense of the term) make it less likely that it exists?
    5. Does moral disagreement lend support to Anti-Realism?
    6. Can a philosopher ever know what you mean better than you know?
    7. Is Metaethics as important as normative or applied ethics?
    8. Are moral judgments meaningless if they are about non-natural properties? If they are non-cognitive?
    9. Do we just know what is right or wrong based on common sense? Does this support Intuitionism?
    10. Can you give another example of an Open Question Argument, with a different candidate natural moral property?
    11. Is there such a thing as moral progress? What does this suggest in terms of Metaethics?
    12. Can a non-cognitivist properly explain moral disagreement?
    13. What is the Humean account of motivation? Why does it support Non-Cognitivism?


    A priori

    A posteriori








    Prima facie








    Ayer, A. J., ‘A Critique of Ethics’, in Ethical Theory, ed. by Russ Shafer-Landau (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).

    ―, ‘The Emotive Theory of Ethics’, in Ethics: Essential Readings in Moral Theory, ed. by George Sher (London: Routledge, 2012), pp. 103–10.

    Blackburn, Simon, Ruling Passions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).

    Brandt, Richard, Ethical Theory: The Problems of Normative and Critical Ethics (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1959).

    Fisher, Andrew, Metaethics: An Introduction (Oxford: Routledge, 2011), https://

    Harman, Gilbert, Explaining Value and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000).

    Hume, David, A Treatise on Human Nature (London: John Noon, 1739), freely available at

    Joyce, Richard, The Myth of Morality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001),

    Kahane, G., ‘Must Metaethical Realism Make a Semantic Claim?’, Journal of Moral Philosophy, 10.2 (2013): 148–78, https://doi. org/10.1163/174552412x628869

    Mackie, J. L., Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin, 1977).

    Miller, A., An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics (Cambridge: Polity, 2003).

    Moore, G. E., ‘The Open-Question Argument: The Subject Matter of Ethics’, in Arguing About Metaethics, ed. by Andrew Fisher and Simon Kirchin (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 31–47.

    Price, Richard, ‘A Review of the Principle Questions in Morals’, in The British Moralists 1650–1800, ed. by D. D. Raphael (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), pp. 131–98.

    Railton, Peter, ‘Moral Realism’, The Philosophical Review, 95.2 (1986): 163–207,

    Ross, W. D., The Right and the Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1930),

    Tanner, Julia, ‘The Naturalistic Fallacy’, The Richmond Journal of Philosophy, 13 (2006), freely available at rjp13_tanner.php

    Wedgwood, Ralph, The Nature of Normativity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007),

    Wilson, Catherine, Metaethics from a First Person Standpoint (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2016),; freely available at

    1  A. J. Ayer, ‘A Critique of Ethics’, p. 21.

    2  R. Joyce, The Myth of Morality, p. 14.

    3  R. Wedgwood, The Nature of Normativity, p. 37.

    4  P. Railton, ‘Moral Realism’, p. 165. 

    5  G. Kahane, ‘Must Metaethical Realism Make a Semantic Claim?’

    6  G. Harman, Explaining Value and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy, p. 79.

    7  S. Blackburn, Ruling Passions, p. 49. 

    8  G. E. Moore, ‘The Open-Question Argument: The Subject Matter of Ethics’, p. 35.

    9  J. Tanner, ‘The Naturalistic Fallacy’,

    10  R. Price, ‘A Review of the Principle Questions in Morals’, p. 159.

    11  W. D. Ross, The Right and the Good, p. 29.

    12  J. L. Mackie, Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, p. 35.

    13  D. Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature,

    14  J. L. Mackie, Ethics, p. 38.

    15  A. J. Ayer, ‘The Emotive Theory of Ethics’, p. 106.

    16  R. Brandt, Ethical Theory: The Problems of Normative and Critical Ethics, p. 226.

    17  C. Wilson, Metaethics from a First Person Standpoint,

    18  For an excellent Metaethical map see A. Miller, An Introduction to Contemporary Metaethics, p. 8.

    1.7: CHAPTER 6 METAETHICAL THEORIES is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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