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Meta-ethics. Issues. What do we mean when we say “stealing is wrong”? Is morality objective or subjective (up-to-me)? Is morality a natural feature of the world (naturalism)? The fact/value problem - can I make a prescriptive statement “I ought” from a descriptive statement?.

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  • What do we mean when we say “stealing is wrong”?
  • Is morality objective or subjective (up-to-me)?
  • Is morality a natural feature of the world (naturalism)?
  • The fact/value problem - can I make a prescriptive statement “I ought” from a descriptive statement?

Fact-Value Problem

  • The problem of determining whether values are essentially different from facts, whether moral assessments are derived from facts, and whether moral statements can be true or false like factual statements.
  • Meta-ethics is used as a type of inquiry to address the fact-value problem.

Hume and Moore: The Problem Classically Stated

  • Hume: The Fallacy of Deriving Ought from Is
  • Moore: The Naturalistic Fallacy

The Fallacy of Deriving

Ought from Is


“In every system of morality which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not”.


The Fallacy of Deriving

Ought from Is

  • Moral theories begin by observing some specific facts about the world, and then they conclude from these some statements about moral obligation.
  • In other words, they move from statements about what is the case to statement about what ought to be the case.
  • Hume was a naturalist himself (morality derives from a natural feeling of sympathy), but is asking us to provide the missing premise.

Moore: The Naturalistic Fallacy

  • It is a fallacy to identify “good” with any specific natural property such as “pleasure” or “natural rational purpose”.
  • G. E. Moore claims that a concept like “Good” is indefinable because it is a simple property, a property that cannot be reduced further, like the colour “yellow”.

Open-Question Argument

  • A test to help determine whether a moral theory
  • commits the naturalistic fallacy.
  • For any property that we identify with “goodness” we can ask, “Is that property itself good?” So “it may be pleasurable, but is it good?”

Ayer and Emotivism

  • Ayer's Two Pronged Approach:
  • Argues that the fact-value problem arises because moral statements cannot pass a critical test of meaning called the verification principle
  • Ayer's solution is that moral utterances are only expressions of feelings, a position called emotivism

Verification Principle

A statement is meaningful if and only if it is either tautological or empirically verifiable.

Derives from Hume’s fork: meaningful statements are either analytic or synthetic.

Analytic: 2+2 = 4 or “all bachelors are unmarried”.

Synthetic: John is a bachelor (this could be true or false: we need to apply the verification test and ask him).


Ayer's Theory

  • Emotivism holds that moral judgments do not
  • have truth values.
  • They are neither analytic nor synthetic, so
  • meaningless (Hume’s fork).
  • Moral judgments are expressions of our attitudes.
  • These judgments express our feelings and help us
  • to persuade others to act as we desire.

Criticisms of Emotivism

  • The verification theory of meaning doesn't pass it's own test - it’s neither analytic nor synthetic.
  • There is a problem with Ayer’s view that ethical disagreements are disagreements in attitude. We believe we are disagreeing about facts (such as agreed goals, or a common view of welfare).
  • Moral language seems to say more than merely express emotions.

Hare and Prescriptivism

  • Moral judgments have both a descriptive (fact) and prescriptive (value) element.
  • The prescriptive element is conduct guiding and recommends that others adopt our value attitude
  • Moral judgments add a prescriptive element to the descriptive element, the prescriptive being the more important element.
  • Moral language is different from descriptive language - it has its own logic, one we recognise.

The Logic of Moral Reasoning

  • There is a logic to prescriptive judgments
  • Moral judgments do not have truth value but they
  • do have a logical form.
  • Hare is inspired by Kant’s view that ethical statements have a logic of universalisability.


  • In making moral judgments one has to say that one would make the same judgment in all similar cases. A judgment is not moral unless the agent is prepared to universalize his or her principle
  • Universalizability is both a necessary and a sufficient condition for moral principles


  • Principles are central to moral reasoning.
  • Principles serve as major premises in our moral
  • arguments.
  • We acquire or learn a basic set of principles.
  • Then we learn when to use or when to
  • subordinate those principles.
  • We choose when, where, and why to apply our specific principles but we are committed to them and to universalizing them

Hare’s analogy: driving a car The Language of Morals

We may illustrate this process of modifying principles from the example already used, that of learning to drive. I am told, for instance, always to draw into the side of the road when I stop the car; but later I am told that this does not apply when I stop before turning into a side-road to the offside -- for then I must stop near the middle of the road until it is possible for me to turn. Still later I learn that in this manoeuvre it is not necessary to stop at all if it is an uncontrolled junction and I can see that there is no traffic which I should obstruct by turning. When I have picked up all these modifications to the rule, and the similar modifications to all the other rules, and practice them habitually as so modified, then I am said to be a good driver, because my car is always in the right place on the road, travelling at the right speed, and so on. The good driver is, among other things, one whose actions are so exactly governed by principles which have become a habit with him, that he normally does not have to think just what to do. But road conditions are exceedingly various, and therefore it is unwise to let all one's driving become a matter of habit. One can never be certain that one's principles of driving are perfect -- indeed, one can be very sure that they are not; and therefore the good driver not only drives well from habit, but constantly attends to his driving habits, to see whether they might not be improved; he never stops learning.1


Criticisms of Prescriptivism

1. It is too broad and allows for conduct that we typically deem immoral. It permits fanaticism.

2. It permits trivial judgments to count as moral ones as long as we can universalise them.

3. It allows the moral substance in life to slip away from ethical theory.

4. There are no constraints on altering one's principles.



Links moral terms with some kind of natural property. Natural in that they are found in the natural world, specifically the natural realms of human psychology and human society


Examples of naturalism

  • Utilitarianism, good = pleasure or happiness.
  • Natural law, good = natural rational purpose.
  • Virtue ethics, good = agreed social goal of eudaimonia or flourishing.

Naturalism and the Open-Ended Argument

Moore's theory regards the idea of goodness as though it were a thing, the fallacy of hypostatization.

Moore commits a mistake by equating “good” with “yellow”. “Good” is a general, complex term, like “colour”, not a specific, non-reducable term like “yellow”.