Alex McPhee

Religious Studies- Ethics

Q3a) Describe what is meant by meta-ethics.

Meta-ethics is a term used to describe the language of morality and the study of what we are actually doing when we use words such as “good”, “bad”, “right” and “wrong”; when we talk about something being good is our belief just subjective or are we referring to something objective, factual and real? Meta-ethical philosophers concentrate on trying to define what our moral language actually means rather than trying to find the answers to ethical issues. Studying this language is difficult, partly because we use these words in everyday conversation (for instance, “I found a good pair of walking boots.”), whereas in a moral context the words can mean something very different. The philosophers who approach these questions can be categorised in various ways, for example having cognitive or non cognitive views. A cognitivist believes moral statements are about facts and can be classified as true or false. They believe that a statement such as “murder is wrong” is propositional and therefore its truth can be known. A non-cognitivist believes that moral statements are not propositions and are neither true nor false. For example, a non-cognitivist would say the statement “murder is wrong” is not based on facts and its truth or falsity cannot be known.

An example of a non- cognitive philosopher is David Hume. The Scottish philosopher was around from 1711-1776 and was the predecessor to the “meta-ethics debate”. He believed that all knowledge comes from our senses. Hume said that if you look at the statement “murder is wrong” all it is saying is I disprove of murder. You may be able to see a victim’s blood and hear their scream but you cannot actually see the wrongness of the murder.  Although “murder is wrong” and “grass is green” are grammatically similar they are not saying the same sort of thing; moral beliefs are merely psychological, and - unlike “grass is green” – “murder is wrong” cannot be proven. Hume also says that we can’t use logic or reason  prove moral beliefs or propositions because piling up facts to back up a certain moral belief is just jumping to conclusions.

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Similarly a group called the logical positivists (also known as the Vienna Circle) who were also non-cognitive, believed that a statement only has meaning if it can be tested using the real world of sense experience. They said that statements could be split into three groups. Firstly analytical/ logical, secondly synthetic, and thirdly they said all religious or moral statements are meaningless. They didn’t say that these statements were useless, but believed the fact they cannot be tested and no-one can know with certainty if they are true or false means they are meaningless. Another ethical non-cognitivist, A.J.Ayer believed ...

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