The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a treasure house for ethics geeks, wonks, and wannabees. It should also serve the writing community. I’m writing today about metaethics, a term not widely used, much less known in fiction writing. Scientific writing knows it and literary fiction suspects it. But most of us rarely tap our keyboards in tune with metaethics rhythms. That is why this post on the ethics of writing about metaethics is only Part One of many on the topic.

Metaethics (one word, not two, and never hyphenated) is the attempt to understand the metaphysical, epistemological, semantic, and psychological presuppositions and commitments of moral thought, talk, and practice.[1] Not to worry; this blog will make no attempt to visit these esoteric aspects of formal ethics. For now, the small bite at metaethics is a nibble around the edges of writing it, rather than practicing it or even believing in it.

Let’s start with the world’s fascination with the notion of fairness. By any standard, fair is an ethical norm. If we’re on the winning side of anything, we do not question its fairness. But when we lose, we all too often question the result. Most sentient beings come to adulthood with a desire for justice, another word for fairness. We look at acts, events, and people through the lens of right versus wrong. If we decide it’s right, we assume it was fair. Wrong is the opposite.

Metaethics is the academic field that examines things like right, wrong, good, bad, and fair. Take theft for example. From a metaethics perspective, theft is not just a crime; it is wrong. That’s because there is an existing norm of long-standing and wide acceptance of right and wrong. An ethical norm is a concrete prohibition against some specific form of behavior. That’s all well and good (other ethical norms) but writers sometimes ask why theft is wrong. When we do that, we’re wearing our metaethics hats. Like Superman’s cape, that allows us to jump over the simple and delve into the complicated. Metaethics goes beyond questioning or justifying. It is an attempt to identify an approach to thinking about why we have moral norms.

To make the leap, we have to give some credence to “traditional” ethical assessment as opposed to “modern” ethical assessment. Some authorities distinguish the two eras as a “Chronological distinction between the classical and medieval worldview and the modern worldview. The modern period roughly begins in the 17th Century, although modern patterns of thinking begin to emerge as early as the 14th Century. During this time, significant changes in the way humans thought about the basics of human life and existence underwent a radical shift.”[2] Let’s not dwell on the medieval; we would not want modern conspiracy theorists to proclaim that as the new thing.

Perhaps just to prove its modernity, Madame Wiki has a page on metaphilosophy and metaethics.[3] It narrows the focus: “While normative ethics addresses such questions as ‘What should I do?’ evaluating specific practices and principles of action, metaethics addresses questions such as ‘What is goodness?’ and ‘How can we tell what is good from what is bad?’, seeking to understand the assumptions underlying normative theories.”

From a writer’s perspective, perhaps the answers lie in whether we choose an active voice over a passive one and write in first person rather than third. Those choices burden our readers. But they are hardly actual moral theories or a true account of the nature of morality.

So, this is just a toe in metaethical waters. A future blog will dive in head first at the shallow end of the pool. That might be the end of that writer.  

Gary L Stuart

I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.

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