Metaethics is the study about ethics. It does not attempt to determine which actions are ethical, like applied ethics. Nor does it attempt to develop a framework to determine morality, like normative ethics. Instead, it explores philosophy about language, definitions, and the nature of morality.
What does metaethics study?
Is morality real? How do we know that morality exists? Or, if it does, what is it? When God and the biblical worldview are taken out of the picture, even something as basic as sentence structure becomes a philosophical quagmire.
What are moral statements?
This may be the strangest argument of all—the discussion of language. Descriptive moral statements about actions sound like descriptive statements about physical properties (murder is wrong; this apple is red). But are they really? Is morality a quality that can be spoken of in the same way as a physical characteristic? Some philosophers believe descriptive moral statements express a characteristic about an action (although the statement may be mistaken about that characteristic—the apple may really be green; murder may really be all right under certain circumstances). Others believe descriptive moral statements merely express an opinion or give a passive-aggressive command. The language of morality discusses what a moral statement really means, what it can or cannot mean, and what the speaker really means when he says it.
How are moral facts known?
If a statement about an action does represent a real quality about that action (even if it happens to be in error), then where did that quality come from? Some believe moral facts, once worked out, can be reduced to a fact of nature—an observable fact about our world (murder takes a life, so murder is wrong). Others believe the authority comes from something outside of nature—a supernatural source (God says murder is wrong). Or is the whole argument rubbish because there is no such thing as "moral fact"?
If moral statements do express a real quality about an action, there are still issues to consider:
Is/ought: Can a moral fact really be deduced from empirical evidence without the introduction of another moral fact as segue? "Murder takes a life" does not automatically translate to "Murder is bad" without a bridge such as "Taking a life is bad."
Open question: Similar to is/ought; in any given moral statement there is always an open question that can be asked about how morality was ascribed to physical reality.
Are moral facts universal or subjective?
Given that moral facts exist, however that may have come to be, are they universal for all people? Are they different for each person? Relative to the culture? Or relative to a theoretical "ideal observer" who would have all the applicable data and make the best judgment call there is to be made?
For each of the opinions stated above, there is a philosophical school.
Cognitivism purports that moral statements have the language characteristic of description. They express real qualities (that may be correct or in error).
Moral Realism/Ethical Objectivism says that not only do statements express real moral qualities, there does exist real, objective, knowable moral value.
Ethical naturalism is the view that real moral qualities are knowable and reducible to non-moral facts about our universe. If we knew everything there was to know about the physical universe, we would see a logical, real basis for morality. This view is vulnerable to the Is/Ought Argument.
"Murder is wrong because the purpose of the universe is to nurture life, and murder takes a life."
Ethical non-naturalism teaches that real moral qualities are knowable, but they are not reducible to facts about the natural world. Morality receives its authority from a non-natural (supernatural) source. Some put the Divine Command Theory here—God is the supernatural source of morality. But this view begs the question—If ethics are from a supernatural force, how will we ever know what they are?
"Murder is wrong, but empiricism doesn't prove it. Something outside of nature influences us, leading us to the conclusion that murder is wrong."
The problems with moral realism include the Is/Ought Argument and the fact that if morality gets its authority from a non-natural source, how are we ever going to figure out what is moral? How is that source going to communicate with us? Instead, subjectivists claim that although language can express moral fact, and morality does exist, its authority does not arise from nature or the supernatural. Instead it is "mind-dependent"—or dependent on an intellect.
Individual subjectivism teaches that morality is a personal matter that is developed out of the experiences and beliefs of each individual.
"Murder is wrong for me, because my experiences have led me to this conclusion, but it may be right for you."
Cultural relativism holds that morality is composed of the rules and standards of a given culture. Environmental and social forces have shaped morality into what is appropriate for each culture.
"Murder is wrong because my law says so, but it may be legal, and therefore right, in another culture."
The ideal observer concept states that if there was an ideal observer, one who had all the knowledge of the cosmos and human nature, that being would be able to determine the morality of any given action. Unfortunately, hypothetical figures don't actually communicate. Although it may seem that the ideal observer theory should fall under the category of realism, it comes under subjectivism because it is mind-dependent—it is based on the opinion of a mind.
"A hypothetical, objective, perfect observer could tell us if murder is wrong, but if there is one, he's not talking."
Divine Command Theory is, like subjectivism and cultural relativism, both a metaethical stance and a normative ethical school. It states that morality is fact, morality can be known, and morality is dependent on the word of God. What God says to do is moral, what God says not to do is immoral. This stance can fall under realism, because the word of the sovereign Creator would certainly qualify for ethical non-naturalism. It could also fall under subjectivism because, like the perfect observer theory, morality is determined by the opinion of a mind.
"God said murder is wrong, therefore murder is wrong."
Error Theory is an odd duck. It posits that statements about morality do indeed describe qualities that may be true or false. Moral statements do speak to issues of fact and not emotion or opinion. But moral truths do not exist, so the statements are all false. The statements about morality are valid linguistic constructs, but morality itself is invalid.
"I can say, definitively, that murder is wrong. And I can say, definitively, that murder is not wrong. But both of those statements are incorrect."
Non-Cognitivism/Expressivism: Because of the difficulty in trying to find out where morality comes from, many philosophers refuse to believe that it really exists at all. This is a problem for language, however, because physical descriptive language (the apple is red) sounds exactly like moral descriptive language (murder is wrong). Instead, non-cognitivists hold that when referring to morality, language is not describing fact or a characteristic that may be true or false. Instead, it is merely expressing emotion, a command, or something else altogether.
Emotivism teaches that moral statements express emotion, preference or opinion. It is not a statement about the act, but the speaker's feelings about the act.
"'Murder—boo!' I say."
Prescriptivism says that moral statements are not descriptions about the act, but a kind of passive-aggressive command regarding the action. It is a vague indication of what the speaker would like done regarding the act.
"No one should commit murder!"
Norm-expressivism is similar to emotivism except that the statement is assumed to refer to the relative feelings of the speaker's culture.
"We all agree: 'Murder, boo!'"
Quasi-realism teaches that although morality doesn't really exist, and although moral statements don't really express truth about moral facts, it is still useful to pretend they do.
"Murder isn't bad, per se, but let's pretend like it is and everyone will be happier."
There are many, many other metaethical arguments that make even less sense than these.
Ethical psychology discusses what induces a person to be moral. Is it selfishness (egoism) or altruism? And how do feelings and reason combine to make a person both define and practice ethical behavior?
Centralism vs. non-centralism debates as to whether complex, or "thick," ethical ideas such as courage, humility, and selflessness can be reduced to basic, or "thin," ideas such as wrong, right, good, and bad.
Nature of truth arguments center on what is truth. The correspondence theory of truth says that a moral statement is true if it happens to match a physical truth that is not connected to the statement. Disquotational schema (AKA: deflationary theory of truth) places more emphasis on language (can the fact be stated) and less on physical evidence, settling for "Does it seem true?"
Supervenience ponders whether the exact same conditions would always result in the same ethical statement, as naturalism would infer, or if ethical statements are independent of the situation, as non-naturalism would claim. Logic might tell us that the same conditions would always result in the same moral point of view. But if moral statements cannot be deduced from physical descriptions, as the Is/Ought Argument asserts, then the same conditions just might result in a different morality.
The Bible says that language is meant to represent truth (Zechariah 8:16), even going so far as to say that language created reality (Genesis 1). Morality is forever (Psalm 119:89). And we can know and follow God's word (Deuteronomy 12:28).
Scripture is equally clear that ethics are God-given instruction for how to live, not fodder for endless analysis. Ecclesiastes 12:11-14 says it best:
The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
What is the philosophy of ethics?
How does applied ethics work?
How does normative ethics develop a framework for defining right and wrong?
How does Christian ethics define morality?
What does moral absolutism say about ethics and morality?
Truth about Worldview and Apologetics