9 Dec 2015

An Introduction to Moral Philosophy

Hail readers!

Previously, I posed a questionnaire regarding the topic of my next essay. My readers’ feedback (your feedback, I should say) has led me to write on the matter above. It will be the first time I address formal philosophical questions—unlike the more literary-concerned essays of past.

In any case: philosophy is a complex and contended field. To truly do justice to even the subfield of meta-ethics (the topic of this essay) would, in truth, require writing a substantial book; and so I shall instead write more succinctly, and without undue preamble and logorrhoea.

Now: let’s get started.

What is Meta-Ethics?

Meta-ethics is a branch of moral philosophy that can be thought of as ‘the underlying assumptions behind moral action and theory’. Meta-ethics is not concerned with how to apply morality (like, say, Utilitarianism) but on what morality actually is.

In Meta-Ethics, there exists a divide. On one side, there are the Realists; these claim that morality is objective, and relates in some way to what may be termed the real world. For the Realist schools of thought, morality is non-relative and can, in some way, be obtained through reason.

On the other side, there are the Non-Realists. For them, morality is inherently subjective; or, in the case of Mackie, morality is a statement about the world that is false.

All Realists are known as ‘cognitivists’—they believe moral language concerns objective reality. (Additionally, Cognitivism states that cognitivist statements are subject to the bivaliance principle, i.e. they are either true or false.) Most Non-Realists are known as non-cognitivists; to them, moral propositions don’t even concern reality.

Mackie—a moral philosopher that is usually better known for his work on atheist philosophy—is unusual in that he believes moral statements are statements regarding reality, but that the truth value of all such statements is zero (false).

Anyway: with the terminology out of the way, let’s get onto the main meta-ethical theories.


This theory dates all the way back to Aristotle and Plato. Naturalism of all forms can be summed up in one sentence: ‘That which brings happiness, is that which is good.’

Naturalism, like the name suggests, is a theory that tries to bring the concept of morality to one observable and testable in the natural world. Naturalism doesn’t concern itself with metaphysical ideas of morality—like most branches of Intuitionism and theist morality. To a Naturalist, morality is just like anything else in the world; it doesn’t have a special status.

A lot of people like Naturalism for this reason. It makes morality seem… scientific. It’s clear. It’s intuitive. And—it’s objective. Stoning people to death is just as wrong in x country as it is in y country.

Now: there are in fact a few different variations of Naturalism. The Aristotelian version is very concerned with the idea of ‘flourishing,’ or eudemonia. That which is moral, they claim, is that which makes humans smarter, or stronger, or wiser.

Aristotelian Naturalism isn’t terribly different from later forms meta-ethically; but more tangentially, it does employ a different form of applying morality. This theory uses virtue ethics—rather than just being happy, it also states that a good man must not be slothful, or lazy; that he may drink, or be proud, or angry—in moderation.

However, this theory is a little fixated on the whole idea of purpose. ‘Rain is good,’ they say, ‘for it is the rain’s purpose to water plants.’

To which later thinkers reply: ‘Is it the purpose of rain to water plants, or do plants grow where there is rain?’

For this and other reasons, there’s also the Benthamian and Millsean Naturalist theories. They place the onus purely on happiness, without any mention to purpose or virtues.


If Naturalism is the most intuitive or easily understood Realist theory, then Emotivism is its counterpart on the opposite spectrum. As the name suggests, Emotivism is all about emotion. To sum it up in a sentence: ‘That which is moral, is that which people feel is moral.’ (The theory was coined the ‘boo-hurrah’ theory by its opponents for this claim.)

Emotivism is non-cognitivist, non-realist, and relative. It’s worth knowing that one of the original formulations by Ayer is actually no longer taken seriously: Ayer believed that statements like ‘Abortion is wrong,’ just means ‘I don’t like abortion.’ RM Hare points out that the statement should really translate to: ‘I don’t like abortion, and neither should you.’


Prescriptivism is similar to Emotivism. It posits moral statements as non-cognitivist, but with one useful difference: Prescriptivists understand that moral statements also involve action, i.e. 'I don’t like abortion, and you shouldn’t do it.

Because of this, Prescriptivism allows for a prescribed morality as set out through law and democracy. It’s still relative, though—the theory does insist that individual laws should be non-hypocritical and clear, but different nations can have different laws.

There is also a variation of Prescriptivism that states that moral codes should attempt to reach a state of general agreement and confluence.

Most non-cognitivists are Prescriptivists for reasons I’ll expand on soon.


Our final Realist theory is perhaps less intuitive than Naturalism (ironically) but has a great deal of interesting things to say.

The Intuitionist Maxim is that morality is a fundamental, irreducible intuition that cannot be extrapolated on any further. It’s like yellow. How do you describe yellow? You can’t; it’s just yellow. The same goes for moral intuitions. Why is murder wrong? Why shouldn’t we cause suffering? These questions are just intuitively grasped.

Intuitionists fall into two branches when asked what and how exactly these intuitions exist. One school of thought posits an Intuition to be something inalienable and basic; all we know is that we have it. Typically, these thinkers also go on to say: ‘We obtain them through a sixth sense—our moral intuition.’ (Some even go as far as to say that this sixth sense is God-given, but it is not necessary to accept this.)

A second school of thought believes moral intuitions to be more like math. Why does 2 + 2 = 4? It just follows logically. Same for ‘I should not harm others,’ or ‘I should not lie’.

What’s important to understand here is that these intuitions are not feelings, even less than yellow is not just a feeling (it’s caused by light waves of a certain wavelength.) Intuitions are something we grasp in reality; it’s just that we can’t explain them linguistically.

Error Theory

Finally, there’s Mackie’s Error Theory. Essentially, Mackie believes that moral propositions implicitly concern the real world; they’re normative statements (‘You must not murder’) that are only made because they relate to some feature of reality.

However, to Mackie, all moral statements are false. Mackie also believes that moral ideas are simply the result of cultural, anthropological and biological imperatives—e.g. the reason we think murder wrong is because we need to avoid it in order to stay alive; we think polygamy or cheating wrong because it brings us some advantage in our society to avoid doing it.

So, Alex: What Should We Believe?

This is a difficult question; nevertheless, I will endeavour to provide you with some answers.

I will discount Emotivism and Naturalism quite readily. In the case of the former, even without debating the ‘emotive’ nature of morality at all, there’s the obvious problem—if x wants an abortion and y doesn’t think it right, a conflict ensues. Thus, we must at least be Prescriptivists if we are to be Non-Realists.

Naturalism suffers from a subtle but important issue: the distinction between hummingbirds like sugar to it is moral to give hummingbirds sugar. The former, as Mackie points out, is a descriptive proposition; it just says ‘x is y’ (or the cat is black). It is empirically verifiable and observable.

But the second is something else entirely; it is a normative proposition: hummingbirds should eat sugar, or you should not murder. It involves… a concept of right and wrong that is distinct from any simple empirical observation. It’s just… something else. (This criticism is known as the is-ought criticism; it was originally formulated by Hume, though Mackie’s formulation is, I think, clearer.)

The other theories are more difficult to argue.

The main problem with Prescriptivism, I think, is that it promises to avoid hypocrisy when by itself it seems hypocritical. If we accept that all these moral codes are just arbitrary human constructs, bearing no relation to reality, how can we ‘prescribe’ morality? We know full well it has nothing to do with reality; that it has no objective properties. For this reason, Prescriptivism just seems… deeply intellectually disatissfying.

There’s also a certain conflict that Prescriptivism has with out intuitions. When we say ‘murder is wrong,’ do we really mean to say ‘I think we shouldn’t murder’? Or do we actually mean ‘Murder is wrong; that’s why we shouldn’t do it’?

For this, I believe that moral theories need to be cognitivist. This now gives us two choices: Error Theory, or Intuitionism?

I firstly take issue with Error Theory on a purely empirical basis. Mackie believes morality just stems from biological or anthropological imperatives; but if so, we would expect to see certain behaviours performed by humans. Babies with birth defects should be euthanised, or if possible, aborted. Invalids should be done away with.

And yet, societies by and large don’t do this! Why do we keep babies with birth defects alive—surely they are not a burden on society, likely incapable of becoming productive citizens? Likewise, invalids.

A common-sense response to this might be: ‘Well, we don’t want to murder our babies or our disabled people; we like them. We pity them. We would feel terrible if we had to do away with them.’

Now, a non-cognitivist would happily accept this—we don’t do it, because it feels wrong. But a question, I feel, remains unanswered. Why do we feel like this? Maybe, you might think, we’re sentient beings who feel emotively attached to other humans. But then… why do parents take care of babies that make their life a living hell? Why do we take care of old people, even if we resent them?

In any case: Mackie’s Error Theory is clearly problematic when it claims our moral intuitions just originate from biology.

The Hard Question of Morality

The above, you may notice, largely concerns itself with how humans generally behave. But we haven’t dealt so much with the concept of morality as somethign extant in reality—like planets or plants.

Mackie has some interesting arguments for why moral statements are false.

  1. The apparent relativism of human morality. In Africa, polygamy is permitted; but not in the UK. In Saudi Arabia, adulterers can be stoned. And there are numerous examples of societies that did kill deformed babies—like Sparta.
  2. Moral concepts are problematic epistemologically and ontologically.
    1. Epistemologically: how do we know these moral concepts? Where do they come from? They are not empirically verifiable.
    2. Ontologically: morality involves normative propositions. No other form of knowledge does; the cat is black; grass is green—all descriptive. This renders moral propositions distinctly… queer.

The former argument is interesting. I have some counter-arguments.

Mackie believes that if societies have different moral codes, it then follows that morality cannot be universal. However: we do in fact observe that there is a lot of agreement among cultures. Gratuitous murder is wrong everywhere, for example. Nearly all societies take care of their old; nearly all find rape despicable.

In instances where there is discord, it is not so much that the moral intuitions that are contended, but that certain false suppositions are made or very unique circumstances change the playing field. The Nazis could murder Jews because they a) believed Jews had done terrible things to Germany, and thus were justified in self-defence; and b) because Jews were supposedly not human. Both assertions are false.

Sparta murdered deformed babies, as indeed did other cultures, because they inhabited an incredibly harsh world. If you live in the Plains or deep in the Arctic, a deformity is not only a sure death sentence but also a burden to your family. The intuition to not murder, we may say, is in fact derived from the fundamental intuition: to minimise suffering and bring happiness.

The second question is… difficult.

At the end of the day, it boils down to: what may exist? I’m fine to accept that intuitions are not empirically verifiable—that it is a knowledge brought from an inner sense—as well as to say that, yes, they are queer. Mackie assumes that everything in the universe is physical and empirically observable; but this is a belief, not an argument. The universe is mainly made up of matter, and physical laws, and falls into the purlieu of scientific method. But is this to say that everything must be so?

An interesting argument that some Intuitionists make is that moral intuitions are in fact logical, like math. However, this is not particularly convincing. For as Hume points out: there’s nothing illogical about preferring to let a country be destroyed in order to avoid pricking my little finger. There’s no contradiction. Kantian-type metaethics, like Naturalism, attempts to put a veneer over morality. It aims to quantify morality like a Rationalist would, or—in the case of Naturalism—like an Empiricist would.

But morality isn’t like that. It’s not something that can be observed like blue skies, or thought of like 2 + 2 = 4. To dress it with the clothes of physicality is to be intellectually dishonest.


I hope my essay has been enlightening; do tell if you found it dense or ambiguous. I also hope that I have convinced you to be an Intuitionist; or, barring that, I hope to have made you ask questions.

Next up, I’ll be writing on the Ark and on poetry. Until then: may the stars be with you. And please—don’t be a nihilistic bastard.


If some of the terms confused you, read this.

Rationalism: a theory that states knowledge to originate from a series of logical axioms obtainable through the faculties of reasoning.

Empiricism: a theory that states all knowledge to originate empirically, i.e. through the senses.

Epistemology: The study of knowledge.

Ontology: The study of being/reality.

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