In Part I of this furtive effort to tiptoe into the 21st Century notion of Metaethics and the Ethics of Metaethics, I stated the obvious:
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. 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.
Months have passed. It’s time to quit “nibbling around the edges” and bite down hard. Here are four questions that establish metaethical positions:
- What exactly are people doing when they use moral words such as “good” and “right?”
- What precisely is a moral value in the first place, and are such values similar to other familiar sorts of entities, such as objects and properties?
- Where do moral values come from—what are their source and foundation?
- Are some things morally right or wrong for all people at all times, or does morality instead vary from person to person, context to context, or culture to culture?
The answers to these and other metaethical questions are steeped in semantics, moral discourse, the ontology of moral properties, the significance of anthropological disagreement about moral values and practices, the psychology of how morality affects us as embodied human agents, and the epistemology of how we come to know moral values.
Cognitivism refers to a class of learning theories based on a rational information processing model of the human mind. Using cognitivism, academics use analytic metaethics to examine the semantics of what is actually going on when people make moral statements such as “abortion is morally wrong” or “going to war is never morally justified.”
Ethical and moral positions like these have been debated for centuries. But the metaethical question is not necessarily whether these statements themselves are true or false, but whether they are even the sort of sentences capable of being true or false.
On the surface, such sentences would appear to possess descriptive content—that is, they seem to have the syntactical structure of describing facts in the world—in the same form that the sentence, “The cat is on the mat,” seems to be making a descriptive claim about a cat on a mat; which, in turn, is true or false depending on whether or not there really is a cat on the mat. To put it differently, the sentence, “The cat is on the mat,” seems to be expressing a belief about the way the world actually is. The metaethical view that moral statements similarly express truth-apt beliefs about the world is known as cognitivism.
Metaethicists are interested in whether there can be knowledge of actual moral truths or only awareness of moral feelings and attitudes. They ask how we understand moral discourse as compared with other forms of speech and writing. Cognitivism is the default view of moral discourse given the apparent structure that such discourse appears to have. If cognitivism were not true— such that moral sentences were expressing something other than truth-apt propositions—then it would seem difficult to account for why we nonetheless are able to make logical inferences from one moral sentence to another.
If one reverts to college philosophy courses and recalls symbolic logic (If A is equal to B, and B is equal to C, then A is also equal to C), you have a start on metaethics. The academic might offer this argument as illustrative. It is wrong to lie. If it is wrong to lie, then it is wrong to get one’s sibling to lie. Therefore, it is wrong to get one’s sibling to lie.
A philosophical study of morality at the college level differs dramatically from sociological, anthropological, biological or psychological studies. It is nearly impossible to define metaethics values applicable to writing fiction or nonfiction. Moral philosophers do not distance themselves from their own moral views. But many writers do, especially when we write nonfiction in the third person. That is because that genre and voice are not “about” the writer—they are about the actual subject of the work.
The discipline of metaethics evaluates cogency or defensibility of moral claims, convictions, and attitudes, and the probity of various behaviors. Writers, especially fiction writers, create stories that include characters, plot lines, and protagonists that call for defending or attacking moral claims, motives, and convictions. These abstractions become part of the invented story.
Normative ethics makes moral claims in its own right. Metaethics does not. Even so, it is morally engaged. That’s occasionally the case for literary fiction and frequently essential in writing nonfiction. Ethicists and Metaethicists answer central questions about whether moral claims are true and whether it is rational to commit oneself to act morally. Writers either make up characters to ask or answer those morally hinged questions. In both worlds, positions arise without taking a position on the correctness or cogency of people’s moral convictions. Ethicists study it. Writers write it.
Stay tuned to this blog for Part III.
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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