In philosophy, Meta-ethics is that branch of ethics which seeks to understand the nature of ethical evaluations. Meta-ethics comprises one of the two branches of ethics as typically divided by philosophers, the other being normative ethics. While, normative ethics addresses such questions as "Which things are good and bad?" and "What should we do?" -- thus endorseing some ethical evaluations and rejecting others -- meta-ethics, on the other hand, seeks to understand the nature of ethical evaluations and how they are made. Examples of meta-ethical questions include:

  • What does it mean to say something is "good"?
  • How, if at all, do we know what is right and wrong?
  • How do moral attitudes motivate action?
  • Are there objective or absolute values?
  • What is an ethical norm and how are norms created?

A meta-ethical theory, unlike a normative ethical theory, does not contain any ethical evaluations. Indeed, an answer to any of the five questions in the above sample selection would not itself be an ethical statement, or an assertion of ethical norms.

In the last century, the field of meta-ethics has been dominated by several kinds of theories:

  1. Ethical realism which holds that an objective morality exists. This view comes in two variants:
    1. Ethical intuitionism or ethical non-naturalism, which holds that there are objective, irreducible moral properties (such as the property of 'goodness'), and that we sometimes have intuitive awareness of moral properties or of moral truths.
    2. Ethical naturalism, which holds that there are objective moral properties, but that these properties are reducible to entirely non-ethical properties. Most ethical naturalists hold that we have empirical knowledge of moral truths. Several have argued that moral knowledge can be gained by the same means as scientific knowledge.
  2. Ethical consensus theory which holds that an absolute moral can be accomplished through an idealized moral discourse. Jürgen Habermas is one of the followers of this view.
  3. Ethical Subjectivism, which holds that moral statements are made true or false by the attitudes and/or conventions of observers. An example of this is the view that for a thing to be morally right is just for it to be approved of by society; this leads to the view that different things are right in different societies.
  4. Non-cognitivism, which holds that ethical sentences are neither true nor false because they do not assert genuine propositions. Some have held that ethical sentences such as "Stealing is wrong" are merely expressions of emotion; others have argued that they are more like imperatives.
  5. Moral skepticism, which holds that ethical sentences are generally false. Moral skeptics hold that there are no objective values, but that the claim that there are objective values is part of the meaning of ordinary ethical sentences; that is why, in their view, ethical sentences are false. J. L. Mackie was a main proponent of this view.

The last three positions can be grouped together under the heading of moral anti-realism.


Some have thought that in the 20th and 21st centuries meta-ethics has come to replace normative ethics as the more prevalent pursuit among philosophers and scholars of philosophy in academia. This is supposed to have occurred simultaneously with an overall decline in belief in moral absolutes in most popular cultures as well as a greater interest in process and categorization as opposed to the identification and application of norms, both in academia and in global society generally.

But this is far from obvious.

See also

fr:Méta-éthique fi:Metaetiikka


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