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Making Sense of Ethics

An Introduction to Metaethics

Published onJul 07, 2023
Making Sense of Ethics

1 • Preliminaries

I think it is wrong to punch people who irritate us. I will go further. I know it is wrong to punch people who irritate us.

In metaethics we ask what it means to say something like It is wrong to punch people who irritate us. If indeed it means anything. And we ask how we can know such a thing. If indeed we can.

This is tricky for a number of reasons. Here is a big one. That it is wrong to punch people who irritate us does not seem to be a straightforward natural fact. What that means can get a little vexed but roughly we may think of natural facts as facts that we are able to ascertain by empirical means by making observations of the sort familiar from scientific facts. Think of the fact that water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen or ordinary everyday facts about our external surroundings like the fact that the sky outside my study window is grey and overcast as I write these words. But it is very difficult to cook up a set of observations or experiments that would serve to confirm or disconfirm that hitting people who irritate us is wrong.

Perhaps what makes it true that punching people who irritate us is wrong is that there are sentences written on the sky that tell us what is right and wrong and those sentences say or imply that punching people who irritate us is wrong. But that would hardly be any help unless we could be confident that these sentences were in some meaningful sense right. After all, if there turned out to be sentences written in the sky that enjoined us to kill our children to make soup we would simply think, What stupid sentences these are! and pay them no attention.

The same problem has always dogged the idea that it was God’s will or command that made right things right and wrong things wrong. So God instructs us not to punch people who irritate us. But why would we do as he instructs? Is there some reason, independently of what God commands, that makes this command somehow correct in a way a command to kill our children to make soup would not be correct? Or is God’s will just arbitrary?

Perhaps we don’t need to think in terms of God or of fanciful sentences in the sky. Perhaps it is just true, dammit, that it is wrong to punch people who irritate me. Perhaps there are facts, dammit, about right and wrong that are not natural facts but sui generis, non-natural facts, facts of some special unique kind. And we know about these brute, sui generis non-natural facts by, well, by a special faculty we have for detecting brute sui generis non- natural facts, a faculty of moral intuition whereby these things somehow contrive to render themselves evident to us.1

This story is really not much of an advance on the sentences in the sky story. It still isn’t clear why anyone should care about these sui generis non-natural moral facts unless perhaps we are told – not very helpfully – that there is a sui generis non-natural fact that says we should. It all seems a little ad hoc. This account of how moral cognition operates is so sparse compared to our understanding of, say, sensory perception, it feels rather as if the question how we have moral knowledge was being given the answer, We just do! somehow! If that is the best we can do to make sense of moral truth and moral knowledge we end up risking making life fantastically easy for the sceptic who wants to deny that there is any such thing as moral truth and moral knowledge at all. This is a narrative that is all too easy to discredit.

2 Moral Scepticism

Thinking about scepticism is actually a good place to start. By scepticism, I mean not so much doubt but rather outright rejection; so it might be better to follow most contemporary philosophers and call this position in metaethics error theory or moral nihilism: the idea that there is no genuine moral truth or knowledge2. This is the view that what we call ‘morality’ is all rot, a tissue of falsehoods we tell children to make them behave, much as we tell them about Santa Claus.

Error theory is at once appealing and appalling. It is appealing since morality, or what goes by that name, is often not an attractive sight. Morality is what we see at work when everyone in the village shuns a woman who has had a child out of wedlock, the oppressive and dismal mindset we encounter in generally rather horrible people who appoint themselves to the job of policing the virtue of others. So there is something rather attractive, something a bit rock and roll, about people who raise two fingers to all that, rejecting it as no more than the sham ideology of the ruling class, a tissue of falsehoods we are fed to make us behave.3

But it usually doesn’t take long for appealing to give way to appalling. Moral nihilism may have a great soundtrack but it tends to lose its appeal when it shows up on your doorstep with a big knife. If we want to challenge the inequalities that benefit the ruling class we are going to need more and not less justice. The language of morality is indeed all too often hijacked by sanctimonious bullies to sow misery and fear but to condemn such mischief, as we should, is a move inside morality, not an objection to it. We can live flourishing lives without retaining our childhood beliefs about Santa. But the idea that we might somehow dispense with morality – as error theorists would have it – needs only to be seriously thought about to elicit serious alarm. I want very much to live in a world that is peaceful and orderly, where those I do business with are honest, where those who govern us are just and those who rub against me day to day are considerate and kind. We all want these things and we have very good reasons to want them, reasons that speak clearly and urgently to e.g. our security, our quality of life and the character of our relationships with each other.

Error theory is apt to appal us because morality matters to us. Because living in a world where moral standards are upheld and sustained is something we really care about. Some error theorists, so-called fictionalists4, think this gives us a good reason to, as it were, make believe or pretend morality is true and act accordingly but that seems an odd and muddled take to me. We might very sensibly ask: Why can’t what it gives us a good reason to do simply be to act accordingly, where that means to uphold, live by and sustain moral standards. That is something we can do without having to make-believe or pretend anything. If we have a good reason to do this, morality has all the credentials it needs. And we do indeed have reasons, excellent reasons, to continue to live together in a morally ordered world. So let’s.

There is nothing mysterious here. It is not as if the real and urgent practical concerns to which moral ideals and understanding speak need some form of ratification from some strange domain of moral metaphysical reality if we are legitimately to take those ideals and understandings seriously. Our doing that already makes perfect sense as an expression of who we are and who, at our best, we aspire to be.

3 Humean Sentimentalism

So here is a natural thought. You believe in the sentences in the sky. Or whatever. But then one day you decide you no longer believe in them anymore. There are no such sentences. Nor are there e.g. any sui generis non-natural moral facts. So much for morality, you might then say, Let’s just forget about it.

Only, not so fast … You quickly realise afresh that you really do not want to live in a society where there are no shared understandings of how we should and should not conduct ourselves towards one another to bind us together in moral community. You really do not want, you quickly remember, to live in a society where, for example, human relationships are a matter of simply preying upon and plundering each other, taking whatever we can without restraint or recognition or respect. The good news is you also quickly see that everyone else also wants to avoid these things. Never mind the sentences in the sky. The passions in our souls give us reason enough. So let’s talk. Let’s maybe have a big meeting and discuss what standards and rules should govern our lives together in moral community given our shared aspiration to moral life. The upshot of such co-deliberation will be the moral rules and ideals by which we will then live.

Here we have a picture where morality finds its roots in the passions in our souls. Such a picture is often called Humean, drawing inspiration from that great eighteenth century Scottish sentimentalist David Hume. Here is one of his famous passages:

Take any action allowed to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it, till you turn your reflection into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action. Here is a matter of fact; but it is the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object.5 

On this sentimentalist account of morality, what does it mean to say it is wrong to punch people who irritate me? It means, at a rough first approximation, that I – the speaker – have a certain emotional orientation towards irritation-induced assaults, an attitude we might naturally say, of disapproval.

Such a view got famous expression in the writings of the twentieth century American philosopher Charles Stevenson in whose famous formula It is wrong to punch people who irritate me comes out meaning:

I disapprove of punching people who irritate me. Do so as well!6

Here the second, imperative sentence, we might say expresses the sentiment that the first, indicative sentence reports. In fact, the second sentence is all we need. The first sentence does not really capture what is being said. Certainly it could not do so standing alone, as Stevenson realized. Standing alone, it is just a report about my psychology. And someone might disagree with me about the wrongness of punching people who irritate me while not doubting for a moment that I do indeed (erroneously as they suppose) disapprove of it.7 Indeed, as Stevenson also came to appreciate, the first sentence is plausibly not even an ingredient of what is meant. For someone might agree, comprehensively, with what I say when I say that punching people who irritate me is wrong despite supposing that I am being insincere and really do not disapprove of such conduct at all.8 Appreciating this, Stevenson ultimately preferred to say that “it is wrong to punch people who irritate me” just means:

Let us disapprove of punching people who irritate us.9

This makes a bit of sense. If we’re going to have a meeting to agree on some rules for our moral community, I will be letting you know I don’t much fancy living in a social world where punching people who irritate us is considered OK. So along I go to the meeting and I say: “Listen everyone, it is wrong to punch people who irritate us.” And in so doing I express a kind of desire, a desire not to live under a code of ethics permissive of such punchings, one I might express as a command: Let’s disapprove of punching people who irritate us; or maybe better, Let’s have a ‘No punching people who irritate us’ rule.

That then is what I mean when I say It is wrong to punch people who irritate us. I don’t come by this thought by having some kind of intuitive contact with some domain of brute, sui generis non-natural facts about right and wrong. I come by it through an exercise in moral imagination and emotional engagement. I imagine a world where permissive attitudes to such punchings prevail and decide, as most sensible people would, that I don’t much fancy that. So that is then my input into our moral co-deliberation, a thing other people all better take somewhat seriously given that I am one of the people in the conversation with whom they are trying to make a moral community.

But this is not yet a very satisfactory picture. I raised the concern above that God’s will might seem arbitrary if there is nothing independent of it that determines when it is or is not correct. The same is not less true of your will or of mine. Our picture so far feels way too arbitrary, way too, we might say, subjective. Imagine someone disagreeing with me, claiming that punching people who irritate us is an important and valuable right and definitely not a thing we should prohibit. We disagree of course, differing as we do about what rule should be in force. But the important question here concerns the space for one of us to be right, one wrong, or for one to be in error while the other might be said to know? Erroneously as they suppose, I wrote above. But what is there, on this picture, for that supposition to amount to beyond the fact that our wills clash?

4 The Big Important Thing We Share: Towards Communitarian Expressivism

We want, more or less all of us, to make an orderly moral community together. So I aired the thought in the previous section that we need to schedule a meeting and start a conversation about this, about what standards and rules should govern our lives together in our moral community. The upshot will be the moral rules and ideals by which we will then live.

Only of course this is nonsense. We don’t need to do anything of the sort. We don’t need to start such a conversation because such a conversation, a vast scattered never-ending conversation, has been going on for a very long time now. For as long as there have been conversations of any kind.10 We have come a long way and we have made a lot of progress. There is a lot of disagreement to be sure. We disagree about when, if ever, it is OK to terminate a pregnancy or to help someone to end their life if they do not wish to continue living. Disagreement is a problem that tends to get in our face. It makes itself salient and gets itself noticed. Agreement just sits quietly in the background taken more or less for granted so it is easy to forget just how much we agree about. In fact, we tend to agree quite a lot. There is pretty deep general agreement about an awful lot: that it is not OK to punch people who irritate us, to sexually exploit children, to traffic people as slaves, to kill people for entertainment, to rob them of their life savings, or to incarcerate them against their will unless one is a lawfully constituted authority following a clearly set out due process.

There is room for arguments to be sure. We mostly think there is a deep difference between robbing people of their savings as practiced by common con artists and what the state does in taking taxes from us; but some libertarians question this and press us to get straight what that difference is and why it is important. Or indeed we might find we have different understandings of precisely what counts as sexual exploitation or what it is for an authority to be lawfully constituted. Such arguments are arguments about the right interpretation11 of the large body of moral lore about which we have reached settled agreement, which we have, let us say, at least for now, banked.

So although our society, like many other societies, has plenty of moral disagreement it also has a lot of moral agreement, a large common fund of shared moral understanding. Indeed this common fund, this Big Important Thing We Share, encompasses not just the sphere of morality but the normative more generally: the larger sphere of practical reason, of what counts as a good or a bad reason for action, what counts, not just as right or wrong but as smart or dumb, foolish or wise. The big important things we share, as we might call it, a space of shared reasons that frames our lives in society together, provides a stable framework against which our many disagreements are played out and by reference to which they may sometimes be resolved.

Given all that, we can complicate things a bit. Here is another thing that might be meant by someone saying It is wrong to punch people who irritate us. They might just be saying that one of the things that has been banked as a stable and settled part of our shared and agreed normative code is this: It is wrong to punch people who irritate us.

So now we might want to distinguish two ways we might understand the utterance It is wrong to punch people who irritate us. There is what we might call the legislative reading which takes it to mean:

Let’s make a prohibition on punching people who disagree with us part of the Big Important Thing We Share.

And then there is what we may call the judicial reading where it means:

A prohibition on punching people who disagree with us is already part of the Big Important Thing We Share.

Now, one view someone might hold about the meaning of It is wrong to punch people who irritate us is a slightly untidy view according to which a moral utterance like It is wrong to punch people who irritate us is sometimes used with legislative meaning and sometimes with judicial meaning. And that view is not unappealing. Some moral utterances feel pretty judicial. It’s wrong to hit your little brother, I might tell a child by way of informing them of the shared moral code everyone in the society they are growing up in accepts. Others feel more legislative, more like demands for change and reform, like nineteenth century feminists urging the moral necessity of female suffrage. Even though that was not yet explicitly part of the Big Important Things shared by people from that society, these feminists were claiming that it should be.

But I think the untidy but appealing view is wrong. I think moral utterances always mean more or less the same, that they are always used with prescriptive and judicial meaning. Consider further our nineteenth century feminists advocating that women be entitled to vote in parliamentary elections. Are they saying this?

Let’s make it part of our shared moral understanding that women have a right to vote in parliamentary elections.

I guess we can agree that they are and in so doing we might understand them to be expressing a kind of desire, a desire not to live under a code of ethics that does not recognize that women have a right to vote.

But are they also saying this?

A recognition that women have a right to vote in parliamentary elections is already part of our shared moral understanding.

Well, they can’t be, you might think because it is not, or at least it wasn’t then. But perhaps our speaker does not experience her desire not to live under the prevailing code of ethics as some raw and unmotivated emotion but as something for which she has, and is able to offer others, reasons, which she hopes can be recognised by others. As such, she is not simply voicing a desire for living under a specific code of ethics. She is also standing surety for the availability of sound and telling considerations for such a code, considerations appealing to the normative understandings that they share, in the space of reason. In doing that she is presenting her claim as something that can be motivated and understood by reference to considerations already recognised as reasons. What she is offering her fellow citizens is thus an interpretation of the Big Important Thing We Share. She is saying to them not: I demand you start thinking this! (Never mind about reasons! Just indulge me!) But something much more like: Look, this may come as a surprise but I think you do think this, or you will find that you do if you reflect on the matter. That’s why what she says is potentially interesting to the people she says it to.

What she is offering is an interpretation of the Big Important thing We Share but it is also, we might say, an impassioned interpretation. She is not just proposing to understand the Big Important Thing We Share in the way she proposes but endorsing it as so understood. This is the best version of the Big Important Thing We Share. Not so much I approve of this; do so as well!, but more We approve of this. Do so as well! On this understanding, what we might call communitarian expressivism, effective moral utterance requires the speaker to be both emotionally plugged in, aligning her utterance with the passions in her soul and socially plugged in as a participant partner in the shared enterprise of making and sustaining the big normative world we share. This moves past the Stevensonian story while retaining its expressivist spirit.

5 Communitarian Expressivism: Knowing Where We Stand

This communitarian expressivist view sits comfortably between two much less plausible and less attractive views. The first of these is simple uncritical conventionalism. What is right and wrong is whatever the prevailing cultural status quo says is right and wrong. It is not very clear what that even means – cultures are messy things12 – but if it means that our feminist from before just has to be wrong in expressing a moral judgement at odds with the conventional wisdom of her times, this view is a non-starter. We don’t think that. We think she was right. Simple uncritical conventionalism is a stupid theory that nobody believes.

The other implausible view is simple individualistic voluntarism. Some Humean views look a little like this but they don’t need to. This picture views individual agents as a kind of normative monads with their own private normative sensibilities that reflect their emotional characters in all their particularity. I have my moral code and you have yours. If our moral codes are alike we will get on. If not, too bad. On the starkest version of this view we are engaged in a kind of solitary radical choice, constrained by nothing, responsible to no one. Anything goes.

This really won’t do either. Obviously, anything doesn’t go. Some moral codes are very transparently just wrong. I might wake up tomorrow fired up with fervid moral emotion towards people who eat pears on a Wednesday. I might confront you with this conviction of mine, announcing:

It is wrong to eat pears on a Wednesday.

But here there is little for this to be but an expression of my will. If perhaps you love me or you fear me you have some reason to heed my words and indulge me by Wednesday pear abstinence, the same reason we may have to indulge the idle whims and predilections of people we love and/or fear. But there is no other reason to take any interest in what I am saying.

The voluntarist, sub-existentialist picture where we can each just make up our own moral sensibility as it were from nothing was always a nonsense. Morality is not a private affair and normativity is not something you do by yourself. A space of reasons and values is a space of responsibility in which we address justifications and arguments to each other and as such of necessity a shared space, not a private one.13

We live together in a space of shared reasons and mutual responsibilities. When I say, It is wrong to punch people who irritate us, I do two things. Firstly, I avow a normative commitment to that effect. In so doing, I give you notice that you can expect me to desist from punching people who irritate me and thereby hold me responsible, should it prove otherwise, for this moral delinquency.14 Second, I give you notice that I expect or even demand that you also desist from such acts of violence and I will think the worse of you should it prove otherwise.

In making such an assertion with any confidence I take a stand. In so doing I show myself confident that what I assert is a part of the Big Important Thing We Share. Here my confidence is a confidence that it will withstand reflective scrutiny in the light of considerations we can agree count as reasons. Such reflective stability is what is here determines truth.

There is an appeal here to normative conventions, but never an uncritical one. Rather a reference to an idealised version of our normative convention, our shared normative outlook at its best. ‘Ideal’, ‘best’: these are normative terms which we here deploy from the inside of our normative life. Best by what standard? By the standards constituted within our normative life. There are no standards, or none of much interest to us, without it.

This isn’t a game we can play from some detached, external, dispassionate perspective. We have to be plugged in, as I already observed, emotionally. That is the bit Stevenson is right about. The thing we are looking for is a set of moral ideals and principles that will guide us to live a life together that we can live with living, ideals of justice and so forth stable under reflective scrutiny that we can all find acceptable. That’s not a game you can play if you don’t care.

But you also need to be socially plugged in. You need not just to be expressing any old emotional state like a horror or disgust of eating pears on Wednesdays. You claim that your proposed moral claim makes sense as part of an understanding of the Big Important Thing We Share that we can all be brought accept. Other members of your community, even those who neither fear nor love you, can thus legitimately be expected to take an interest in what you say. You appeal to the common conceptual currency of shared normative understandings that frames our moral conversation. It is only because of just this stable framework of commonality that we can accept the authority of others to hold us to moral expectations and demands in the space of our shared values. If there were no such stable shared space, if we were normative monads, failing to connect together, our moral conversations would just be futile emotive soundings off to each other and no meaningful moral community would be possible.

6 Conclusion

It is wrong to punch people who irritate us. What is more, I know it is wrong to punch people who irritate us. How do I know? Well, my mum told me this was wrong. And so did my dad and various other teachers and suchlike elders and betters. And indeed, as I also know, it is accepted by more or less everyone in my society that this is wrong. Except perhaps a few thugs who are not touchstones of moral wisdom. While at the other end of the spectrum those the rest of us recognize as good, morally exemplary people reliably accept and seek to live lives that accord with this rule.

I am rightly confident this is a claim that will survive any amount of reflective scrutiny by thoughtful and decent people. I myself endorse this rule and am utterly confident that no amount of sober refection will make me stop endorsing it. That is where I stand in the moral space we make together.15

I can give reasons for this confidence. I can give reasons why it is a good idea to embrace an ideal of the person that can only be met by not punching people who irritate us and an ideal of a morally well-ordered society as regulated by an understanding of morality which prohibits such assaults. It is easy to give such reasons, many of them. Physical violence, such as punching people, is a terrible thing. It causes humiliation, pain, injury, sometimes death. It leads to distress, anger, resentment in ways that often lead to a cycles of further violence. All this poisons our relationships with each other and makes it difficult for us to live together in safe, stable, orderly communities. So we valorize peaceable conduct and allow such violence to be permissible only in very particular circumstances such as when we seek to defend ourselves against violence from others. It would certainly be disproportionate and foolish to resort to violence in the fact of mere annoyance especially when we know people sometimes cause annoyance innocently, inadvertently, even justifiably. These considerations are just straightforward, uncontroversial moral commmonplaces and there are lots more where they came from. Deep general agreement about an awful lot much of it so commonplace it ordinarily goes without saying. But, like other things that ordinarily go without saying, no less important for that.

The wrongness of punching people who irritate us is right at the heart of our shared space of reasons richly connected to everything that is important to us and speaking clearly to the passions in our souls by reflecting our aspirations of who we want to be. Good, morally exemplary people, I said, Thoughtful and decent people. The considerations we appeal to in support of our moral beliefs are always informed by our moral beliefs. There is no space outside morality for us to stand and from which we can reason morality into being from pure reason. Not at least if by pure reason we mean something purely formal like the constraints of logic and mathematics. It is not hard to imagine fictitious moral codes that are at once repugnant and consistent. Moral requirements are requirements of reason but the reasons that require them are already moral reasons and always were.

There is a deep contingency here but ultimately it is the contingency of our being who we are. We might have been creatures of a very different kind. And then we would have had values and ideals of a very different kind. But in fact we are the kind of creatures that we are. And we have the kind of values that we do. For which, at least on a good day, we can perhaps be grateful.16

Further Reading

The stuff I say in this article gets said in a bit more detail in my book:

Lenman, James: The Possibility of Moral Community (forthcoming OUP)

Here are some books about metaethics I highly recommend. (Some of them are about other stuff as well.)

Classic books

Plato. Republic.

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics.

Hobbes, Thomas (1651) Leviathan.

Hume, David (1740) Treatise of Human Nature.

Hume, David (1751) Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals.

Kant, Immanuel (1785) Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.

Moore, G.E. (1903) Principia Ethica, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stevenson, Charles L. (1944) Ethics and Language. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Stevenson, Charles L. (1963) Facts and Values. New Haven: Yale University Press

Hare, R. M. (1952) The Language of Morals. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Rawls, John (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Mackie, J. L. (1977) Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Harmondsworth. Penguin.

Contemporary books

Anderson, Elizabeth (1993) Value in Ethics and Economics. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Calhoun, Cheshire (2016) Moral Aims. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dworkin, Ronald (2011) Justice for Hedgehogs. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Finlay, Stephen (2014) Confusion of Tongues. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Foot, Philippa (1998) Virtues and Vices and Oher Essays in Moral Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gibbard, Allan (1990) Wise Choices, Apt Feelings Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Harman, Gilbert and Thomson, Judith Jarvis (1996) Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hurley, Susan (1989) Natural Reasons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kitcher, Philip (2014) The Ethical Project. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Korsgaard, Christine (1996) The Sources of Normativity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Joyce, Richard (1998) The Myth of Morality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MacIntyre, Alasdair (1981) After Virtue. London: Duckworth.

McNaughton, David (1988) Moral Vision: An Introduction to Ethics. London: Blackwell.

Moody-Adams, Michelle (1987) Fieldwork in Familiar Places Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Pettit, Philip (2018) The Birth of Ethics: Reconstructing the Role and Nature of Morality Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, Michael. (1994) The Moral Problem. Oxford: Blackwell.

Taylor, Charles. (1989) Sources of the Self. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Tiberius, Valerie (2008) The Reflective Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Williams, Bernard (1985) Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. London: Fontana/Collins.

Walzer, Michael (1987) Interpretation and Social Criticism Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


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